Article MT125

Theodore and The Sunshine Violin Band



I was very pleased to see my short article on the St Lucian fiddler Joseph McLawrence reinstated in Musical Traditions recently and the interest it has created in some parts.  What it did, however, was to remind me of a remarkable coincidence that occurred in that summer of 1985.  Now to find one St Lucian fiddler in London is lucky I know, but to find two in the space of a month was quite astounding.

Flicking through City Limits one Saturday afternoon in June 1985, Peta Webb calls out "Saturday night.  The Sunshine Violin Band.  Cadence, merengue and soca from St Lucia.  Fancy it?  You never know, it might be the real thing" she said.  "Yeah ... right" was my opinion.  But we went nonetheless.  My hopes were not high, particularly when I found out that the concert was part of the Southwark Community Arts Festival, sandwiched between poetry readings and (preserve me!) street theatre.

But we made our grand entrance into (I believe) The Mick Jagger Hall where about thirty South London trendies, dungarees neatly ironed and Doc Martins polished, had assemled ready to bop.  After what seemed an eternity listening to Soca on the PA, the announcer finally welcomed the band on stage with the informative comment "Er ... Ladies and er ... The Sunshine Violin Band"  Then out trooped the group - two guitarists, two banjo players.  a shak-shak (maraccas) player, bass and drums.  Their ages ranged from 21 (the drummer) to 82 (maraccas) and after a brief tune up and warm up, out strode the violin player and began to play.  The audience stood bemused.  The boppers did not bop.  Peta and I looked at each other - our jaws dropping.  Because, backed by a swirling rhythm, part Caribbean (the banjos and maraccas), part modern African (the guitarists) there blasted out some of the most strident and exciting English-style country fiddling we had ever heard.

We were exhilirated - and, in fairness, most of the punters got into it and stayed to the end when we had a brief chat with the violinist, Theodore, who told us that the band, half from Luton and half from London, played regularly for St Lucian dances and gave us a couple of dates where we could maybe see them again.  Easter Saturday 1986 dance posterThis we did and over the next year or so we went to maybe 8 or 10 of their gigs.  The most memorable I recall was at a community centre in Bethnal Green called Club Row where the band were performing at a Hurricane Benefit dance.  Peta and I arrived at about 9 o'clock to be greeted by Theodore who was chatting to some friends outside.  Now Club Row was quite a busy place, consisting of a good sized and smart saloon bar where that night there was an Irish trio performing and in the back a large dance hall.  These were seperated by a narrow little bar where a couple of elderly men sucked on half pints of Guinness.  As we went to enter the two somewhat over-efficient women on the door, not realising that we were all together whisked Peta into the Irish night, let Theo sashay into the dance hall, and no prizes for guessing where I was dumped!

It was a great night however, much friendliness and some of the coolest dancing being shown to us and I would like to think we became good friends with Theodore and his band over this brief period.  A lot of possibilities went through my head - most of them daft - a recording maybe but in those days it would be an LP and 1000 copies and who would buy it?  The National was mentioned or the English Country Music Weekend perhaps but more problems seemed likely, not least the band's rather bizarre fee (£179.50 per gig - I never found out why).  But I was determined to do something so the least I could do was to interview Theodore and this was arranged on a Saturday night just before Christmas 1985 in possibly the most unsuitable venue The Finsbury Park Tavern in North London where Theo was to later meet some friends to go on to a house party in Seven Sisters Road.

Looking back this was maybe not the most professional bit of interviewing I have ever conducted for I never even found out Theodore's full name!  To us he was Theodore and a mate and on that cold winter's night in London he spoke most eloquently and charmingly of his Sunshine days.

I was born in a small town, Choiseul in St Lucia in 1934 - yeah so that makes me 51 now (he looked ten years younger) and my father kept a small farm about three miles from town but his occupation was a fisherman, that was my profession back home too.  Father didn't play music but I had an uncle Dimas (phonetic spelling) he was a cabinet maker and he played the violin - he was good too - and I'd go and listen to him a lot.  I'd get sent to town for shopping when I was a boy and many times I would go and visit him on my way home and sit and listen to him for hours.  I knew I'd get a beating when I got home because there would be mother waiting there for the shopping so she could cook the dinner, but I didn't mind.  But my uncle would never let me touch his violin - oh no!

But one day I was making fishing pots for my father, you know out of bamboo rods and I was cutting the bamboo with an axe and I swung too hard and cut off my big toe.  I got very sick and I had to stay at home - I could not get around for weeks and my uncle's eldest son, he had five sons, well he lent me his own violin to play on, you know, to pass the time.  I could only play on one string, the E string to begin with - it was two or three months before I could really play anything at all, and that was a calypso.  Us boys liked calypso, we'd hear it on the radio and sometimes on records and my favourite was Lord Kitchener (sings a bit of Kitch Come to Bed) but there was Lord Crystal and Lord Haw Haw I recall.  I don't know if anyone on our island sang calypso, I don't think so, I never heard them.

Our family had a small farm, I told you, a few pigs, cows and goats, and it was my job to look after them when father was fishing.  But I was too busy playing the violin.  One day a workman comes to our house and says to father "Do you own those goats over in the valley?  I see three of them are dead and the others don't look as if they've been fed for weeks!"  And I'd told father the day before that they were fine!

I heard the man you mentioned Coffin1. See Joe MacLawrence article1 and he was good.  He played three or four times at our house for dances my father had organised.  He came from Cafayet (phonetic), but I never saw him .  Dances were for adults only - no children allowed, but I'd listen to him while I was laying in bed.  I'd have been about 13, I guess.  But the best I heard was an old man called La Bodet (phonetic) he's dead now but his son still plays I'm told and you would think it was the old man.

The first dance I played for was when I was 14 - for a christening party.  What it was really was the girls of the village would take a baby doll and pretend to christen it and they would have a little dance afterwards and you know pretend to be grown up.  And they knew I played a little and invited me along to play the music for them.  Oh I played a lot of christening parties after that (laughs).  And then I started playing a bit at the bigger dances.  You see when they'd have a dance back home well maybe four of five violinists would turn up along with mandolin, guitar and banjo players because the dances lasted so long and everyone could play a set or two.  So that's how I learnt the Quadrille by playing with these older boys who played , more experienced boys, until I found my confidence.  I just picked it up off them.

You see dances in those days they'd be organised months ahead.  The person organising the dance would charge £2, 10 (Caribbean) dollars which you could pay in instalments if you wanted and that would cover getting in and food and everything but it wasn't done for the money, no just the enjoyment.  So when all the money was collected they'd buy a young cow and cook it and maybe 100 men and 100 women would turn up and dance.  It was a nice time.  At one o'clock in the morning everyone would stop and eat and then carry on the dance 'til maybe eight o'clock when there would be breakfast - fish and bread maybe - and then carry on until it was time to go to church.

It would be four couples dance the quadrille and they'd pay £1 to join the set, pay the musicians, a pound and you would dance all the seven parts of the quadrille and that could last a good while.  The musicians would always play the seven parts in the same order and you'd follow the dancers.  You see it's like when my friends from Luton come down to London, well they'll want to show off their steps, like in a polka, show off their steps to the Londoners and that might take a while before you get back to your first partner to finish the set.  Then you'd play a waltz or a calypso when everyone join in and they don't pay for that and then another quadrille set and the next couples pay £1 to join in.  And so it went on.

The dances would always be on a Saturday night - no other day.  The only other day us musicians would play would be for a wedding and that was always on a Tuesday.  The musicians would come to the church and when the wedding was over they'd play a March - always the same tune (hums a bit of a very attractive March, not the customary Here comes the Bride) and the musicians would lead the party to the couple's home or to the hall if there was to be a reception.

Asked about the origin of the Quadrille:
Well I don't rightly know, I've heard several talk of it but I think the music came from Europe, Scotland maybe, and the dance came from Africa.  play Sound ClipBut we had a lot of different communities on the island and a lot of different music.  There's one tune we play called the Norwegian Dance (sound clip) and the Scottish (Schottische) that's one of the seven tunes for the quadrille, and Lakonmet, that's a French tune.  I can speak French, and patois.
Asked about other musical and social events in St Lucia in his time there:
Oh there were a lot of things going on in my day.  Like when there was a funeral, when somebody die, they'd hold a wake, mostly in the country, they did it sometimes in the towns, it wasn't illegal, but mostly out in the countryside.  And people would come at night to the house and sing hymns inside the house - Sankey hymns.  And they would tell stories about the dead person and tell jokes - do what they could to cheer up the relatives, very different to over here.

And then you've heard of the Rose Societies2. The celebrations revolving around the Rose Societies form St Lucia's most famous and visible cultural identity, the equivalent of Carnival in Trinidad or Rara in Haiti. The two societies La Rose (Lawoz) and La Marguerite (Lamargrit) have been in operation since at least the beginning ot the early 19th century and may have their origins in much earlier secret societies organised to support either France or Britain who fought for possession of the island for centuries. Although there has been animosity between the two groups over the years, sometimes resulting in violence, both societies, who hold regular meetings now operate largely as local social support organizations. But they do hold considerable political clout and are seen to have a unifying and positive influence on the island. They also still retain their songs.2 - that would be in August, La Rose, that was our one, and the whole island would stop and join in.  People would take that seriously, like being Labour or Conservative over here.  Then La Marguerite that would be later in the year but La Rose was the big one.  They would start collecting for that from oh May onwards and the policeman would like arrest you for silly things, I don't know, like having odd socks on and you'd have to pay sixpence fine and all that money would be collected and spent on food ,a small cow maybe, yams, rice.  And they would elect a king and queen and hold this big party in a hall and sing their own songs, different songs, no instruments, well maybe a banjo or guitar sometimes.  And one person would sing a line of a song and all the crowd sings back at you, answers you back.  I've done that.  (Sings a line of a song in French to the deafening accompaniment of Meatloaf on the pub's jukebox.)

And on 29th August there would be The Fishermen's Feast, that was a good time.  They would decorate all the boats in the harbour and the people would come down and the minister would bless the boats and then on to church in the morning and then on to the big hall and there'd be food for all and at night they'd have the bands and eat and drink and dance till all the money had gone.  Then in November, November 22nd, St.Cecilia's birthday, they would have what they call the Musician's Feast.  All the musicians would go to the church for a service and then they would go to every pub in town.  There'd be free rum waiting for you, the musicians, and you'd be followed by this huge crowd, and you'd play in every pub and rum shop until you couldn't play any more.

Then that would be followed by the Christmas carols, the same carols as over here (sings a couple of lines of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) and you'd go round all the pubs playing and the people would be behind you singing - Serenade they call it.  And on Christmas Day you would visit every house and the people would give you roast beef - goulash style - with bread.  The musicians would go to every house and play and eat and drink.  Even people you didn't like you'd go and visit them - well Christmas is Christmas - and if you got pissed up they'd let you stay the night.  No one minded.

Almost unbeleivably, Theodore was to turn his back on all this:
I moved to England in 1957, I was 23, and found a job in Luton and I worked at a ball bearing factory there for nineteen years.  And one day I was invited by a man who knew me back home to come and play at a house party in Luton.  So I went and met other musicians there and they introduced me to some more and I formed this little band there.  Theodore and Little GeorgeThat would be in the early Sixties.  (In 1986 only one banjoist and Little George, the shak-shak player remained in the band.3. I bumped into Little George one Saturday afternoon in The Highbury Barn pub in Islington and had a brief chat with him before he had to leave for home. He was 82 at the time (1986) and was born in Antigua. Incredibly energetic both as a man and as a musician he told me that when he was a young man he would travel a great deal around the islands in the Caribbean doing short term contract work on road building. 'But' he rather memorably stated 'the first thing in my suitcase were the maraccas. I'd pack them before my underpants!'3  Our first real public performance was a Quadrille Dance in Luton and it was held in the basement of a club there.  Well it was like the Beatles man (laughing).  It was so crowded, full of St.Lucians, mothers and fathers from back home and their children who had never seen a quadrille and they packed the place.  It was too crowded to dance and I kept banging people with my elbow when I tried to play.  But once the kids left the older people could dance and we played that night 'til eight in the morning.

But you know running this band costs me a fortune.  I have to pay the band you know seven musicians and sometimes a singer and I have to rent the hall (in the Mile End Road) for practice nights and it all comes out of my pocket.  Some of the other guys sometimes they think they run the band and I let them keep thinking that 'til they lose interest and come looking for me.  No I'm the boss ... and what I say goes!

A few more gigs and some good times later, a multi-racial concert the band were to perform at was cancelled at the last moment and, despite a couple of fruitless phone calls, contact between us was lost; a situation I now deeply regret.  Should any readers have any further information on this remarkable band I would be delighted to hear from them.See below

Keith Summers - 17.5.03

Article MT139

Well, he did.  A short while ago, I got the following e-mail [Ed.]:

I would just like to say that I loved the article on Theodore and the Sunshine Violin Band by Keith Summers.  Chris Theodore was my grandfather and I had no idea he was actually well known.

Sadly, he passed away in 2001.  Having moved back St Lucia, he suffered appendicitis and died not long after.  But he wasn't just a violinist - he was also a great person - he was always there to offer encouragement as I learnt the violin (although I am classically trained), even when I gave up.  The last thing he said to me before he returned to St Lucia from the last of his frequent holidays to England was that he'd told everyone in St Lucia how proud he was that one of his descendants played the violin and that he wanted me to have his violins when he died.  A month later, he was dead.

Needless to say, I have taken up playing the violin again, though I've lost out on some vital years - but I've joined a youth orchestra we're going on tour in the summer.

Thank you for displaying the article about my grandfather on your site.  It has really helped me to see him as others saw him.

Nicole Theodore - 15.3.04

Notes:

1.  See Joe MacLawrence article.

2.  The celebrations revolving around the Rose Societies form St Lucia's most famous and visible cultural identity, the equivalent of Carnival in Trinidad or Rara in Haiti.  The two societies La Rose (Lawoz) and La Marguerite (Lamargrit) have been in operation since at least the beginning ot the early 19th century and may have their origins in much earlier secret societies organised to support either France or Britain who fought for possession of the island for centuries.  Although there has been animosity between the two groups over the years, sometimes resulting in violence, both societies, who hold regular meetings now operate largely as local social support organizations.  But they do hold considerable political clout and are seen to have a unifying and positive influence on the island.  They also still retain their songs.

3.  I bumped into Little George one Saturday afternoon in The Highbury Barn pub in Islington and had a brief chat with him before he had to leave for home.  He was 82 at the time (1986) and was born in Antigua.  Incredibly energetic both as a man and as a musician he told me that when he was a young man he would travel a great deal around the islands in the Caribbean doing short term contract work on road building.  "But" he rather memorably stated "the first thing in my suitcase were the maraccas.  I'd pack them before my underpants!"

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