“Quelbe Jolt Her, Quadrille Steady Her” by Opal Palmer Adisa

Image Courtesy of 802. Shared via a Creative Commons license.


She had no memory. The past did not exist for her. Instead what she had was today and endless todays, and whenever a nudge that was like a dirty film crept over her eyes, or tried to out run her mind, or cast a shadow, urging her to look back, she would simply suck her teeth, clamping her jaws tight, drawing air through clenched teeth and pursed lips. Always vigilant, she made sure the past never overtook her and made a fool of itself or her.

Imagine then her utter surprise, when walking around the mahogany tree collecting pods that fell from it, and putting them into a plastic bag, she felt as if someone from nowhere had run up and draped her in old clothes.

The layers of memory burst forth as loud as mahogany pods falling onto the hard ground, then popping open, the hard shell separating into four equal pieces, revealing their seeds. As God’s Child picked up one pod, not yet splintered into spoon-shell handles, the music of Bully and the Musical Kafooners resounded in her ear, causing her to drop the pod, shake her shoulder, and shuffle her feet as she came face to face with a little girl who could have been her in another life.

The little girl was sandwiched between two people, undoubtedly her Mamma and Pappa, who were smiling into each other faces, and now and then glancing down at the little girl as they danced under the naked sky, stars shining unabashedly.

God’s child whirled around tossing the mahogany pods hitter and thidder, until an old Jamaican woman sitting on one of the benches in Budhoe’s Park hollered,

“Hold up! Hold Up! Don’t be stoning me. Me is no sinner.”

God’s Child paused trying to make out what was before her, but the past had overtaken her. How could she have been so careless? Self-admonishment. Rushing over to the old woman, sweat immediately beading her face, God’s Child entreated:

“Do let them take me. I can’t go back there, at least not now.”

“Child,” the woman’s voice was sweet like a coconut roll, “you have to go. When it’s your time, and it’s your time. Is all right though. Is a good place to visit. You don’t have to stay there, you know.” And so saying the old woman waved, dismissing God’s Child, and then returned her eyes to the Daily Guide open on her lap.

From somewhere far yet near, a voice God’s Child trusted said, Nothing to be done but surrender.A big quadrille dance was taking place and the best of the Quelbe musicians and dancers were there, Blinky and the Roadmasters; Bully and the Kafooners

Jamese and the Allstars; Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights, and even Pikey Demetre copeman. They were having a competition, and the music and festivities were as sweet as sugar, chewed directly from the stalk, juice running down the chin. The little girls zigzagged between the dancers, clutching a half-eaten Johnny Cake in her hand, her cheeks puffed out from the other uneaten half stuffed in her mouth. Everyone was talking and laughing, occasionally slapping each other lightly to make a point. Most of the men had on black slacks, with madras button down shirts made to be worn out of their pants. But the women were most beautiful, with their white ruffled blouses, that hung slightly off their shoulders, lace trimming the sleeves, and they wore wide, three tiered ruffled skirts in various colors of the madras, the bright green and gold color dominating. Their heads were adorned with madras headdress that matched their skirts, with elaborate pointed tips, some of the women only had one, most had two pointed tips on their headdress, while others sported three and a few, even four.

The child couldn’t decide how many pointed tips she liked until she ran smacked into her Mamma, who pulled her into her wide shirt, kissed the top of her head, held her gentle and said, “Don’t run and eat. I don’t want you to choke.” Then Mamma pulled her gently, turned her around so the Child’s back was pressed up against her Mamma’s stomach, which allowed her to chew and swallow the rest of the Johnny Cake.

“That’s my and Pappa’s girl,” Mamma said, holding her at arm’s length, then stooping to smile at her, eye level.

That was when the child saw, that unlike all the other women, Mamma’s headdress was also trimmed with white lace, that accentuated the two points. Looking up at her Mamma with coffee smooth skin, slender waist, straight back and squared shoulders on which hung her cloud white blouse, with ruffles that flaired to her writs, the Child was flooded with pride and joy that this woman before her was her mother. On tippy toes, she stretched her arms towards Mamma, who bent to allow her to encircle her neck, and the Child declared, “You are so pretty Mamma. The most prettiest of all.”

“No I’m not.” Mamma said, removing the Child’s arms from around her neck, and cupping her face between her warm palms. “No, I’m not“ Mamma emphasized again more firmly. “You’re way pettier than me, and everyone here. You are beauty and don’t ever forget that.” Then Mamma kissed her on the forehead before being pulled by one of the other women, who said, while taking her Mamma’s hand as if she was a child, “Is our time. We have to line up.”

The child loved the music that they then called scratch, probably because of the scratching sound the squash made. Her Pappa always said,’ This is fi we music, the best of Africa and a little of Europe. We been playing this music since slavery days on the estates in these here little islands of ours. Yes, sir, our creation.” Then turning her face to look where he was staring, Pappa said to the Child, “See that man there, the tall shinny black man. He is the best of them all, Jamsie, the king of quelbe,” Pappa ended chuckling, momentarily forgetting about his daughter.

The child loved her Pappa because he never spoke to her in baby talk, and always took time to explain things to her. “Before we had scratch bands we had fife and drum bands. But mostly all the instruments back then were homemade, from whatever we could find,” He added swinging her arms with his.

In fact, earlier that day before the dance, her Pappa had brought out three instruments that he often played and had her Momma and her join him in an impromptu jam-session. He kept them on the Mahogany cabinet in their living-room, that he made and, which was her Mammas most prided piece of furniture, after her mahogany bed. Her Pappa had a squash, a washboard, which was his favorite and a fife, her Mamma’s favorite. They had played and Pappa had talked about the music, and her mother had smiled obviously enjoying her father, and had turned to her and said, “Can’t you see your Pappa now. Talking to important people about our music. Yes, indeed I can sure see him doing just that.” Then her mother had winked at her father who winked back at both of them.

The Child who could have been who God’s Child was then, remembered many such nights with her Mamma and Pappa dancing the quadrille with various scratch bands, before they eventually came to be known as Quelbe groups, the national music of the Virgin Islands. Most nights she would be asleep before the quelbe party was over, and was carried in her Pappas arms. Always her mother would tuck her in bed, kiss both her closed eyes lids and whisper to her, “Remember my love for you is vaster than the entire ocean and you are beauty.”

Mamma never said she was beautiful, but always that she was beauty. Once she asked Mamma why she said she was beauty rather than beautiful, and her Mamma looked at her closely and with the most serious expression she ever remembered on her mother’s face and with words as lovely as frangipani petals, her Mamma stated. “Many people are beautiful. But you are the stamp, you are beauty, the standard, everyone else is just a little piece of you.”

So the child who could have been God’s Child grew in love, with music and dancing at the center of her home. Her Pappa always played scratch or quelbe music and he never missed an opportunity to point out the different instruments. He would hold her wrist like it was a delicate piece of glass and with his head cocked towards the sound from where the music was being played, he would caution, “Listen to the guitar, and hear how the pipe man layers over the guitar. And the sweetness of the banjo. MyGirl,” his pet-name for her, “that’s our music. Is we make that.” His face would be open and light like the first rays of sun in the morning.

In addition to dancing the quelbe, sometimes her father played as a member of one of the scratch bands, either with Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights or even before Stanley, with Jamsie and the Allstars.

He played the squash or the washboard or the steel triangle, but he was always dancing, and his eyes would trail her Mamma, who always danced even after perspiration plastered her clothes to her skin, and her feet ached. She danced like dancing was going out of style and she had to get in every last move, and that was indeed what she did.

Mamma and Pappa were the center of each other’s world, and the child was the center of their world. People in the community of Grove, where they lived, said they were like three peas in a pod.

As far and as deep as the Child searches the pockets of her memory, she does not stumble over a single place where harsh words, or loud criticizing voices were present. Laughter and love lived in harmony, and she hears Momma’s voice singing, “There’s no place for strife in this house.” And Pappa’s voice intoning, “Only love and joy for my big and little girls.”

That was all she knew, but perhaps it is a truism; `nothing lasts forever.’ On the eve of what would have been her thirteen birthday –a big cause for celebration her mother had claimed– the had taken her and got them both the exact same quelbe blouse and skirt, and matching white shoes as the Child’s had grown over the last two years, and was just two inches shorter than her mother, standing regally at 5’ 8.’’ And for the entire month before what would have been her thirteenth birthday celebration, her mother and father had been practicing and teaching her all the quelbe steps and songs they knew, and her mother had gone dancing almost every night for the entire month to different quadrille dances, as well as she held classes to teach the children in the community, and had recently formed her own quadrille group, on top of her regular job as a cook at a local restaurant.

The day of the party, Mamma prepared so much food, food was piled everywhere, including in the bedroom and at the neighbor’s house. Seems like everyone from the community was invited, and even if they were not, they attended and from noon until midnight people kept coming, food was eaten and more was prepared and in the midst of it all was dancing. Mamma danced and twirled, and laughed out loud, and she pulled the Child to dance with her, until the child was weary and her feet hurt so badly that all that was left for her to do was drag her body and go and sit outside where some of the children were playing under the Tibet tree.

There she fell asleep and dreamed that she was alone and walking on air.

She woke to a hushed silence, night snuggly wrapped around the house, and she recognized her Pappa’s voice, raised and in a commanding tone, as she had never heard it before and that scared her.

“Stand back. Give her some air.”

Still groggy, the child rose from under the tree where she had fallen asleep, only to see her Pappa carrying her very still Mamma in his arms. She forced her way through the crowd and her Pappy gently put her Mamma on the sofa that had been pushed in the corner so there was more space for people to dance and move about.

Someone brought a cold wash-cloth and placed it on her mother’s forehead, a few women fanned her, someone suggested giving her water to drink, while Papppa massaged her hand and blew into her face. After what seemed like forever, Mamma opened her eyes, smiled and said, “I want to die dancing.”

People sighed and laughed and clapped, but when her Mamma tried to get up, her Pappa put up his hand and said, “Folks, it’s close to midnight and the party is over. I’m not ready for my wife to die, even from dancing, which is in her blood.”

As people reluctantly filed out and headed home, the Child went and cuddled close to her Mamma, who whispered so slightly, she barely heard her, “Beauty, don’t ever stop dancing.”

The next morning Mamma was dead, still dressed in her quadrille costume, long frilly madrass skirt, red and yellow the dominant colors, her white cotton blouse hanging from one shoulder, splattered with food, and her feet swollen, the soles caked with dirt, as she had taken off her shoes half way through the party to dance.A siren wailed issued from God’s Child, and tears streamed down her cheeks. “Mamma, Mamma. Why you dead just so?” she bawled dancing around. The old Jamaican woman who was still reading a magazine on the bench in the park, dropped the magazine and went and put her arms around God’s Child, and led her to sit beside her on the bench.

“Hush. Hush. Hush nuh mon.” She cradled God’s child in her arm, patting her on the back as if she were a baby.

“I didn’t want to go back there. I didn’t want to go back there.” God’s Child repeated.

“Me know, me know, but you had to today. You had to hear what you Mamma said to you. You had forgotten, but she did want to remind you. Is Friday today be. Tonight at St Gerard’s Hall them having quadrille and quelbe. You must go. You Mamma say you must go.”

For a very long time, God’s Child sat with her head buried in the old Jamaican woman’s chest. Then she got up, shook herself as if shaking off leaves that had been tossed on her, and walked off without saying a word to the old woman. Half way down the block, the old woman shouted at her:

“Memba, tonight you must dance the quadrille.”

Ten o’clock that evening, God’s Child, freshly bathed and dressed in an African print skirt and top, waltzed into Saint Gerard’s Hall. She slung to the walls as if they were a part of her, but when Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights began the music, and when The Grand Master, the caller, announced that it was time to quadrille, God’s Child stepped forward, even though she didn’t have a partner, and she danced for her Mamma; she danced, and danced until the memory that had surfaced earlier in the day was sweated away, and as she walked home weary, but happy, she chanted, “Dancing not go kill me tonight. Dancing not go kill me at all.”


Opal Palmer Adisa is a writer, curator, photographer and professor. Her forthcoming book, Look! Moko Jumbies, is a picture book for children.