Profile of Tanny & The Boys string band

Profile of Tanny & The Boys string band

The Men and Musical Tradition of Tanny & The Boys is the premier string band of St. Martin, and some would dare say of the North Eastern Caribbean. The musical group remains remarkably popular with the young and the old; and it has entertained personages from the Mighty Sparrow, kaiso king of the world, to Queen Beatrix of the Dutch kingdom. Tanny & The Boys was founded in the late 1970s and has the distinction of being the oldest existing band—of uninterrupted music-making–on the island. The golden age musicians of this band play a festive music rooted in traditional St. Martin. The music is as sweetly infectious now to the mind, body, and soul of many as it was to revelers and partygoers for the first half the 20th century when the string band was a dominant mode of entertainment at parties. Those parties at times lasted “all night long” and “for days” on this Charismatically Caribbean island.

The band is named after its once bandleader Nathaniel “Tanny” Davis. Tanny played music for nearly 50 years before retiring in the 1990s (his banjo was made in St. Martin by Albert Cocks and is over 40 years old). He also played the “cuatro,” a small four-string guitar. Tanny, born in Anguilla in 1930 and reared in St. Martin, founded the now defunct string band, Beach Island Stars. The Stars was formed in the late 1960s and included fellows like Hignet Rogers, Ebel Gumbs, Federico “Culebra” Smith, and the late George “Papang” Henson, Alfred “Demon Devil” Lloyd and Abraham Thomas. Federico “Culebra” Nathaniel Smith, now in his mid-70s, is considered by the band and the folks of St. Martin to be Tanny & The Boys’ main attraction. Up to this day some folks know the band as “Culebra dem.” His singing is the essential style of Tanny & The Boys. Born in the Dominican Republic to St. Martin parents, Culebra is a veteran at the art of string music, playing the guitar and singing for over 40 years. He started out with a French Quarter-based string band that included old-timers like Féfé Hyman, Lionel “Djuki” Romeo, Carl London, and Maurice Wescott.

Maxime Emeal Reed and Culebra are Tanny & The Boys’ lead vocals. Maxime is a former member of Beach Island Stars and has been strumming guitar for over 50 years. Born in Anguilla in 1921, he came to St. Martin in 1938 as a teen-ager and that same year took up with a group headed by the late accordion player George Blyden. Blyden held “casa dances” Over-The-Pond every Thursday and Saturday nights. When Blyden’s son, Ludwick, left for Curaçao, the guitar-playing job went to Maxime. This dudish musician has known the nation’s party life from the time of ”two-sou dances” to the “house concerts,” to when in some parts a party was called a fête; a bottle of ”jack iron” rum and “a little plate of bullfoot soup” were “payment” for musicians who played long, hard and sweet into the fore-day, while dancers “whined” away to the festive music of the string band.

Edward “Eddie” Emanuel Violenus has been playing music since the age of 16. His accordion is the soul of the Tanny & The Boys sound. Born in Aruba in 1939, Eddie was an original member of the now defunct Seteto Flores, a string band that played at house parties, hotels and formal functions in the early 1960s. Seteto Flores started out with musicians like Karl “Tall Boy” Arndell, Jocelyn Arndell, Thomas Pemberton, Alberto Richardson, Arthur Mathew, and Raymond Violenus. An instrument maker, Eddie made the tambora, marimba and güiro now used by Tanny & The Boys. Eddie took part in the transition movement from purely string music to the “big band” beginnings, when between 1962 and 1965 the Seteto Flores fused with the horn or “blowing” instruments of music pioneer John C. Larmonie’s Philipsburg Community Brass Band to form Philipsburg Conjunto. Conjunto, also known as Larmonie and his Boys, appeared to have been formed expressly in response to the 1960s audience demand for a bigger and better “amplified” party sound at the popular “public dances” held at St. John’s Ranch, Vava Flanders’ theater in Grand Case, and like venues throughout St. Martin.

George Bernard Violenus is the band’s tambora-man. George, like his brother Eddie, was born to St. Martin parents in Aruba in the late 1930s. George, the “observer” of the group, has been knocking and beating his drum since the age of 17. He sang with Cortijo out of Puerto Rico and Cuba’s Chapotin and mantansera when those musical groups played in Aruba during the mid- to late-1950s. On St. Martin, in the early- to mid-1960s, George sang with Butcher & The Boys. Since the late 1970s George has been keeping the sweet rhythmic drumbeat for Tanny & The Boys.

James Roosevelt Samuel joined “The Boys” in 1991, replacing the late Abraham Thomas on the marimba, the band’s bass instrument (resembling and sounding much like the African hand-held kalimba). The St. Martin-born Roosevelt is the eldest son of another traditional string master and maker of instruments, James “Jim Tucker” Robert Samuel. A young Roosevelt was the maracas player for the Jim Tucker group. Tucker’s band of stringed instruments troubadours reigned at jam sessions known as “bull fight dances” and “public dances” held throughout the island and especially those hosted by Tounké Flanders in Experiment, and by Lilian Arndell and Louisa Stewart in Sucker Garden during the 1950s and into the 1960s. In 1959 Roosevelt played guitar pan (13-note) for the Jungle Sparrows when that steel band traveled to Curaçao to perform. He also played the maracas and marimba for Seteto Flores.

Jocelyn Antonio Arndell, born in Curaçao in 1941, has been playing music for 32 years, in his own words, “off and on.” He could be considered a junior member with “The Boys,” but his scraping güiro instrument brings a haunting primordial sound to give a persistent stroke of mystery to this classic St. Martin fête music. Jocelyn, the band’s historian and an original Seteto Flores member, also plays the accordion, guitar and marimba. His late mother Lilian Arndell, a village queen hostess of the “bull fight” and public dances, was an accomplished folk player of the guitar, mandolin, concertina, flute, and accordion.

In 1992, Tanny & The Boys released Fête: The first recording of traditional St. Martin’s festive music(LP/cassette, Mountain Dove Records). At the onset of the new century came the release of Classic Tanny & The Boys – String Band Music from St. Martin, (A Mongoose Production, 2000), the band’s first CD. Since this last recording, which contained new songs and a few old favorites, the band of seniors, with a seemingly inexhaustible disposition, continues its rigorous schedule all over St. Martin (and an occasional gig abroad), playing throughout the week, every week of the year in hotels, for private parties and cultural activities. The music and the accent that the musicians bring to the songs, whether sung in English or Spanish, bring alive a unique language that is felt as a total, joyful experience of mind, body and soul. “The Boys” play merengue, calypso, tumba, bolero, waltz, pop, blues, polka, and mazurka with a grace, confidence, and macho mastery that is legendary to the culture of old time musicians, especially as expressed in the playing and posture of the classic panman. “The Boys” “dem” appear to hold their instruments as an extension of time-earned genius, play their music and sing their songs with an eternal freshness, and convert a calypso tune into a merengue mix as only artists wised by the experience of doing art for the sweetness of life’s sake could ever do.

In Fête and in Classic Tanny & The Boys some of the band’s songs are traditional, folksy, their origins on St. Martin obscure. Some of the music treats are cherished by “The Boys” as their original creations. Some are adaptations of old-time calypsos and of tunes brought to St. Martin by music men like Theophile “Ton’ton Neg” Flanders and Bèbè Flanders returning from Santo Domingo in the 1920s with particularly meringue and the Cuban bolero and guaracha. On the cultural forge of S’maatin they fused it with native music, song and dance forms (ponum, pump-drum, possibly the quimbé). These folk musicians would then draw on Creole (including Papiamento) rhythms and other Caribbean sounds from French- and English-speaking islands. In the cultural heartland villages such as Rambaud, St. Louis, Freetown and Colombier they “string out” a unique sound at fêtes and during courting and Christmas serenades. The songs and music of ”The Boys” also has an antecedent heritage in string band players like the colorful Daniel “Négro” Thewet (the late father of Kaisonian Mighty Cat), Wa’kin Dollison and their “two-sou dances” of the 1940s.

The musicians of Tanny & The Boys have played all their lives, firstly for the people of St. Martin, at “house concerts,” “casa dances,” “public dances,” anniversaries, birthday parties, book parties, and formal receptions. The band has played in Anguilla, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Barthelemy, Tortola, St. Croix, Trinidad, The Netherlands, Bonaire, Curaçao, Germany, in Aruba where it took part in a live TV tourism promotion to Japan in the late 1980s, and in Cuba at the 22nd annual Festival del Caribe, Fiesta del Fuego in 2002. “The Boys” has entertained St. Martin’s lieutenant governors, mayors, and a host of other dignitaries, personalities, and visitors to the island.

© 2002 by House of Nehesi Publishers/Mountain Dove Records.

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