Mahlon Pickering, who is known by many St. John residents as “Koko,” leader of the Quelbe group Koko and The Sunshine Band, is about to take on a new challenge – teaching.
Pickering will share Quelbe music and its heritage with students at the St. John School of the Arts beginning this fall.
Quelbe’s roots run deep in the Caribbean, and its style was shaped by slaves imitating their masters.
“Quelbe music as we know it today really came about as a fusion of music that was done by the slaves,” said Edney Freeman, project director for last year’s Quelbe Traveling Exhibit and Colloquium.
“When Europeans were having their social functions, the slaves would mock them and that music developed as a result of them mocking the European music,” Freeman said.
Home Made Instruments
Slaves were enrolled in Euro-pean military drum and fife bands, which helped shape Quelbe as we know it today, Freeman added.
“The natives were enrolled in those drum and fife groups, and that was really where they grew out of,” said Freeman. “The original Quelbe band had those basic things – the flute, the drum and the pipe.”
Slaves supplemented these in-struments with whatever items were within their reach, according to Pickering.
“The slaves made their own instruments,” he said.
Learned on Fishing Wire Yukelele
Pickering was introduced to Quelbe music as a young boy on Tortola.
“I lived in a little village called Cane Garden Bay, and my family had a small fishing boat,” he said. “When the neighboring fishing boat would come back in the afternoon, I volunteered to clean the boat, and my payment was fishing wire, which I made into a yukelele.”
When the adults saw Pickering’s interest in music, they helped to teach him a few things.
“I would get out there and play, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Pickering. “Once the older men saw I had some interest in the music, they started showing me where to place my fingers, how to strum, and things like that.”
Students To Learn On Yukelele
Pickering plans to teach his students the same way he learned – by starting out on the yukelele.
“I’m going to start with a small yukelele, and explain to them the chord structure,” said Pickering. “Once we get that down, we will get more hands-on with the other instruments.”
The arts school chose Picker-ing to share Quelbe and its history with students to help them learn about their culture, according to SJSA Director Jan Kinder.
“We wanted to increase what we are doing with local culture,” said Kinder. “That’s they key thing — just having children get back to their musical heritage.”
Carrying on Culture
Pickering, who has never taught children before, said he is confident about taking on this new challenge.
“No, I’m not nervous,” he said. “It’s music that I love from way back when I was young. It’s in my blood, so I’m happy to do it.”
Pickering is looking forward to carrying on the culture of Quelbe music, he said.
“There aren’t too many places on the island for young folks to learn this kind of music,” said Pickering. “I think it’s important to share it and continue it for generations.”
hough much of Pickering’s time is taken up by his band, and his job with the V.I. Port Authority, he will ensure he has time to share his love of Quelbe with St. John’s youth, he said.
Asking God for Help
“I am going to ask God for help in sharing this culture,” said Pickering. “If I have to spend night and day to do it, I will.”
For class schedules and registration information, visit www.stjohnschoolofthearts.org.