In a not so perfect world, The Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra of the USVI represents steelband truth in its perfection. Founded in 1981 by Chief Judge Emeritus, Hon. Verne A. Hodge as a part of the Superior Court of the USVI (formerly the Territorial Court of the USVI), the Rising Stars was established with the intention of keeping young Virgin Islanders focused on school and out of trouble.
As a former Rising Star of the entering class of 1992, this blog author is writing from personal experience. Biased as this author may be concerning the Rising Stars, it would be an impossible task to find a reasonable, objective human being who upon considering the facts, does not agree that the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra is most likely the best taxpayer investment there is. First and foremost, the primary focus of the Rising Stars is not the steelpan. Instead it is focused mainly on molding and developing disciplined, school-aged youngsters who will stay out of trouble, stay in school, and eventually graduate. The steelpan however is the primary motivational and musical tool which is used in order to maintain the focus of the youths in the program.
As a young, trouble-making adolescent in the summer or 1992, this blog author had just finished the 8th grade at All Saints Cathedral School in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and was looking forward to the long summer break ahead. While I deluded myself into thinking I had my own plans for the summer, my father, who was a strict disciplinarian, as well as an officer of the court, had completely different, life-changing plans for my summer vacation. He informed me out of the blue one summer morning that he had secured a coveted place for me in the Rising Stars summer program, which was like a boot camp, basic training of sorts for young steelpan novices.
The memory of my father breaking this news to me, although it almost 25 years old, is still as clear as yesterday. The prospect of spending my summer learning to play pan with over 100 other children from schools all over St. Thomas did not particularly appeal to me at the time. However, my first day at orientation began to change my perspective. In the sea of unfamiliar faces of students from all over the island, I recognized four girls who were my classmates and we grouped together during the orientation. In our entering class, there were students as young as 5 years old and as old as 16, who came from schools all over the island from Adelita Cancryn in Charlotte Amalie, to Eudora Kean on the east end. While we all began the program as strangers to each other for the most part, by the end of the summer, we grew into a big family.
After orientation, the shocking news came to us musical novices, that by the end of the summer we were expected to perform a repertoire of seven songs including the Virgin Islands March before the public at Emancipation Gardens. Even more shocking was the news that before we were going to begin any actual playing of the instruments, we would have to go through 2 weeks of steelpan classes where we would be taught about the history of the steelband in Trinidad and its development from the tamboo bamboo bands in the colonial era, as well as the individual voices in the pan family and their note layouts. Just when the entering class thought they were finished with school for the year, the painful news broke that we were destined for steelpan summer school! As far as the Rising Stars was concerned, it was not enough that we were taught this information, but we also had to prove through regular written examinations that we had retained the information. Students who failed the written examinations had to take them over until they passed.
After two weeks of steelpan class lessons and tests, the students had to decide which instruments we wanted to learn. Of course, most of the students wanted to play tenor and double tenor in order to be on the frontline and be seen. As far as this narrator however, the double seconds became my steelpan of choice.
Once all of the students had decided upon our steelpan of choice, we were divided into sections and the tenor students broke off into the tenor section, the bass students into the bass section, etc. The instructors of each individual section consisted in large part of older, standout members of the band who had recently graduated from high-school and were thus ineligble to continue playing with the band. Our instructors were essentially the best players in their respective sections during their years with the band.
Although I hit the ground running in my double seconds section, everything began going downhill as soon as we were introduced to off-beat strumming. It was at this point that I began to question whether the double seconds were truly a good fit for me as I began to earn the dreaded label of a ''nugget'' (a player with a hard head who is slow to learn). I began to lose focus somewhat and the next thing I knew, the instructors had me doing push ups for losing my focus. In the Rising Stars, there is little to no room for slacking off.
While there were high expectations of us students, the instructors always made it clear that if we as individual players did not make the grade at the end of summer, we would fail to graudate to ''the big band'', which consisted of the somewhat older, regular Rising Stars members who had already proven themselves at Rising Stars boot camp and had several local performances under their collective belt, including annual Christmas concerts at Reichhold Center. A small group of the standout members of ''the big band'' had already traveled to far off places like Japan to perform with the band as official Goodwill Ambassadors of the USVI. The stakes were high and there was pressure to perform and make the grade among the new class of students.
In order to encourage excellence, awards were offered at the end of the summer to the best students of each section. In reality, every player was ranked from the best to the worst and in order to prove ourselves individually, we had to perform concerts at Magen's Bay with multiple combinations of small bands that consisted of one player from each section. In this format, there were no other members to cover for each other's mistakes, and every indivudal player stood alone and was ranked based on their individual performance in their respective band grouping. Although out of approximately 15 members in my double seconds section I was ranked third although I was happy that one of my schoolmates at All Saints, Jabriel Ballentine, who was one year younger than me, won the award for the best double seconds player of our Rising Stars class.
At the end of the summer of 1992, despite the regular threats from our instructors that those failing to make the grade would be cut, we were informed that the Rising Stars would be adding a ''little band'' for the remedial players in addition to the ''big band''. ''No child left behind'' was a fixture in the Rising Stars because of this fact, long before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 went into effect on the mainland.
Our Rising Stars entering class of 1992 also produced a famous reggae artiste, Delyno Brown who is more widely known as Pressure. He was in the tenor section and a few years younger than me, but he respected as an older youngster when we were coming up in the band.
Can you spot a young Delyno Brown playing the tenor in this Rising Stars Video Circa 1993? He later went on to become a standout tenor player in the band.
The above video emphasizes what the Rising Stars is all about, which is education with an eye towards becoming a productive adult in society, courtesy of the steelband as an agent. The above video sums up the tight-knit community which lies at the heart of the Rising Stars, which is fostered not only through steelband practice, but also through providing after school tutoring services and help with homework, as well as providing a safe atmosphere where children can be productive and remain off the streets after school and in the hands of responsbile adults who are looking out for the best interests of the members.
In essence, the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra is a shining example of taxpayer dollars being put to the best possible use and as a direct result of the Rising Stars, the potential of the children of the USVI, who are the most valuable resource, is being expanded and actualized through the steelband. Members of the Rising Stars are accustomed to the finest instruments that money can buy as all of the instruments in the band were made by the late, great Herman ''Guppy'' Brown, tuner extraordinaire and the best tuner of all time according to many pan enthusiasts including myself. Not only did Guppy make most of the pans for the Rising Stars, but he was regularly flown to St. Thomas to tune up the band a couple of times out of the year.
Here is more evidence of Rising Stars perfection in the form of one of the best Rising Stars ensembles to date. The following performance features a Rising Stars legend, Justin Petty playing the tenor pan from the reverse side underneath the skirt. It was filmed a few years before I joined the band, but it also features some of the best players to ever graduate from Rising Stars, many of whom later became section instructors for my entering class.
In closing, maximum respect is due to John Hodge (Chief Instructor), Ralph ''Rabbi'' Felix, Wayne ''Pops'' Donadelle, William Haynes, Adelia ''Queenie'' Henneman, Lauris Questel, and last but not least, the Hon. Verne A. Hodge, as well as all Rising Stars family who have passed away, as well as those who continue in carrying on the legacy.