Sweet Briar College and Trinidad’s Skiffle: A Musical Community

Assistant professor of music Dr. Jeffrey Jones directs the Chamber Orchestra at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. While studying the health benefits of musical communities through long-term, detailed medical ethnomusicology, Jones built meaningful relationships with the Skiffle Steel Orchestra of Trinidad, and he ultimately developed Skiffle USA, the only college steel band serving as an official branch of the renowned Trinidadian steel orchestra.

Giving While Taking

Before earning his doctorate in ethnomusicology from Florida State University, Dr. Jeff Jones earned B.M. and M.M. degrees in percussion performance at Appalachian State University. In addition to his extensive academic work, he has performed internationally and throughout the US with multiple artists and ensembles, including with a U.S. Marine Field Band (III MEF), the New Paradigm Percussion Quartet, Steely Pan, and Pangea. His research interests drew him to study musical traditions from around the globe, particularly their relationship to health, healing and culture.

With over a decade of field work on ethnographic projects studying the ways musical communities affected health and well-being, Jones became particularly focused on projects that would be mutually beneficial to the academic community and the host community. Jones notes, “Sometimes scholars take a lot-but don’t give a lot back.”

Therefore, it was important for him, as a scholar and educator, to offer “something of use and value,” rather than just focusing on the benefit to self. In other words, he needed this to not be a “post-colonial relationship where we are taking more than we are giving,” and in order to give back he knew there had to be “communication, sustained engagement, and stakeholder investment.” Rather than focusing solely on what could be learned-i.e. taken-from the group, he knew to ask himself what that community needed and what that community wanted.

Jones ultimately met and befriended Junia Regrello, the Captain of Skiffle Bunch in Trinidad, whom he found to be a visionary and charismatic leader. While working on his dissertation-Music and Healing with the Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra in San Fernando, Trinidad-Jones was dedicated to being useful to the group, so he arranged, taught, and conducted music for Skiffle. He also participated in the group’s youth development programs. Both Jones and Regrelllo were invested in the many ways that being part of a musical community supported the health and well-being of the group’s members.

Additionally, the two men observed how the young people involved in the community would develop skills and habits of mind that would serve them well later in life: discipline, professionalism, resilience, and self-efficacy. With those ideas in mind, they ultimately decided to develop a USA brand of the group which Jones would host from the Sweet Briar College campus.

An Inter-Cultural Exchange Opportunity

Captain Regrello wanted to develop “a more global reach,” Jones explains, while Jones was equally interested in an “inter-cultural exchange opportunity.” Realizing the multi-cultural elements would work powerfully for both groups, Jones dedicated himself to bringing community members from Trinidad to Sweet Briar College as well as taking Sweet Briar College students to experience the musical community in Trinidad firsthand.

While in Trinidad, they attended The Southeast and Caribbean Chapter of the Society of Ethnomusicology conference and presented a forum which was well-received: “The Skiffle Steel Orchestra Project: Intercultural Learning in an International Organization.” They met with the mayor of San Fernando to discuss ways to develop cultural tourism through summer programs that feature pan. All of the SEMSEC forum participants, including members of Skiffle USA, were interviewed to contribute to an article for a popular website for steel pan enthusiasts, “When Steel Talks.”

In 2013, through the support of a faculty grant, Jones participated in Panorama, which he calls “the most prestigious international steel orchestra competition,” and his group-Skiffle Steel Orchestra-placed fifth. In August of that same year, as part of the Babcock Season and with the help of a variety of campus partners, Sweet Briar was able to host a residency for Skiffle that lasted ten days and culminated in a festival appearance at “Get Downtown” in Lynchburg.

Jones even had the chance to conduct Skiffle as they played one of his arrangements during the Babcock Season performance: a steel orchestra version of Giacomo Puccini’s “Humming Chorus” from Madama Butterfly. In short, Jones proudly recognizes that the project did offer “sincere and long-term engagement” from the Sweet Briar students, so he knows that they accomplished what they had initially set out to do.

The Gig Must Cut: Intellectual, Emotional, and Social Growth

Recently, Jones returned from a visit to Trinidad, where he witnessed a wedding by two of the Skiffle band members. He notes that when the couple first met they were both at a crossroads. She had just lost her mother, and things could have “gone sideways” at that point; as a very young man, the groom-Brandon Babb-had been associating with a rough crowd. Jones found their ceremony to be a beautiful representation of the power of music to build and sustain a community as well as the individuals inhabiting that community.

The bride, Rheanne Edwards-Babb, explains that she had just started secondary school (designed in Trinidad for 11-16 year olds) where students must qualify to continue their education; ultimately, students can qualify for an associate degree at age 18. She was 12 when she started Skiffle and came to the program with very little musical experience.

Edwards-Babb shares, “For every pan person the main achievement to playing pan is to be able to be on a Panorama stage,” which is how she ended up with Skiffle, which she credits with helping her through her schooling, where she achieved full certificate in secondary school and then attended the University of the West Indies for a degree, all while staying active in the band. Describing Skiffle as a comfort to her during any difficulties, she notes, continued “Whenever things got hard, I could just turn to my music. I remember my mother even giving me my personal tenor pan for my 18th birthday just to help to keep me grounded.”

Considering the band her extended family, she explains how much they lean on each other for emotional support. When her mother passed away, Edwards-Babb was devastated. She credits the group members for helping her through that time. The group also brought her Brandon, now a senior member of the band and her husband.

“When the typical teenager was heading to the mall to hang out, I was heading to the pan theatre-the panyard-or heading to a performance somewhere in the country, or even heading to another country to perform.” Rather than developing temporary social relationships, Skiffle members formed tight and lasting bonds.

She also explains that music teaches discipline, a rare type of discipline in fact, where performers learn to separate from their emotions to serve the greater good. For instance, if there are disagreements among bandmates-which, of course, there are in any group-their mantra is one that reminds them the performance comes first, regardless of whatever else is going on behind the scenes: “The gig must cut.”

The Instrument’s Relationship to the Broader Group

Sweet Briar student Brea Marshall was part of the orchestra as a first-year student, when Jones asked members if they were interested in joining a drumming group. Though she had never once played a drum, she found the idea exciting. Having been a band member since middle school and a member of church choir, she already viewed music as a “spiritual journey” and was thus open to new adventures.

Since joining the group, she has found herself even more enthusiastic about music. She shares, “Being in band or orchestra settings, it was inspiring to engage in music more in terms of improvisation and community building. I have learned to be more relaxed in playing music.” In her experiences with Skiffle USA, she is learning a great deal and undoubtedly focused on playing well, but she is also devoted to having fun-because Jones insists upon it. In fact, she believes that freedom to have fun is what might be missing in the educational system today-where music educators become so focused on correctness that they “limit how students engage their performances.”

Marshall adds that one of her most important experiences with Skiffle USA thus far has been seeing the transformations of her peers. Though they were hesitant initially, especially when the groups from Trinidad and Virginia were first united, the group members quickly opened up to one another. She shares, “For the music, these exchanges can offer more authenticity in the music in terms of sound. This specific sound of steel orchestras in Trinidad may inspire musicians to learn about the history, the people, and the culture. I believe that this will make performers more humble, realizing that their goal is to play just as well as musicians in Trinidad.”

After they played in the downtown Lynchburg festival, Marshall recalls the members of a diverse crowd all coming up to tell them what an amazing experience they were having, leading her to believe that these opportunities offer exchanges between cultures that lead to conversations about virtually any topic. “They will bring more appreciation,” she adds, “which will make people more open, and friendships with an inter-cultural group ties people together emotionally.”

About Jones, Marshall explains that he teaches not only about individual instruments, but also details each instrument’s relationship to the larger group. In class, he shows videos from Trinidad of Skiffle performing, to show them how the members engage with the music and feel every part of the performance. Jones wants his students to engage with their audience just as profoundly, and Marshall has watched as her peers grow more engaged in the classroom practicing these techniques.

She also mentions that joining in with performing seems to come naturally to members of the group now, as they have formed a tight and cohesive unit. “Every time I sing a tune, someone joins in,” she adds. Even during times of frustration or anxiety, Jones just encourages them to keep going-to just “have fun and they will get it.” Just as Edwards-Babb explained of Skiffle in Trinidad, the group pulls together, regardless of how difficult the circumstances may be. Every instrument fits together, and the harmony follows.

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.