The Caribbean has a crazy country music scene, and it's in St. Lucia

St. Lucia's music scene has been blending Creole culture with country music for decades

WORDS Jason Fitzroy Jeffers
July 2018
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Cowboy Sealy on Vieux Fort's streets / Photography by Gary James

Kalimé Entertainment Bar and Grill probably fits just about anybody’s vision of paradise. Tucked away in a cove at the bottom of a rocky hillside road, the tiny beach pub is packed with folks knocking back frosty rum cocktails and bottles of beer under tiki huts. It’s an idyllic slice of Caribbean life, as if cut from a tourism ad. 

 

Tonight, the crowd is made up of younger locals wearing Air Jordan sneakers and fat gold chains, short dresses and sports jerseys—all the visual cues one might expect in a reggae or hip-hop video. It’s karaoke night, but instead of singing “No Woman, No Cry” and “Hotline Bling,” almost all of the people stepping up to the mic are belting out American country music standards—songs twice as old as the kids singing them—by the likes of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. As they sing, their lilting island accents give way to a twang that sounds lived-in, even though Nashville, Tennessee, is well over 2,000 miles away.

 

Welcome to St. Lucia, perhaps the only island in the Caribbean where George Jones is as popular as Bob Marley, if not more so. On this particular Saturday, Kalimé isn’t the only place on the island where country music classics drift through the palm trees. Head into the bustling capital, Castries, and you’ll find several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it venues playing tunes more suited for the Grand Ole Opry. Inside, couples square-dance under neon lights, as they do every weekend.

“Plenty of visitors to the island can’t believe what they’re hearing,” says Cowboy Sealy, Kalimé’s young, clean-shaven emcee. When he’s not hosting karaoke nights, Sealy performs country music with his band on the hotel circuit, all of them decked out in cowboy attire, Stetson hats and all. “People say, ‘Country music in the Caribbean? That doesn’t make sense!’”

 

With its iconic twin mountain peaks, lush rainforests and sleeping volcano, tiny St. Lucia is one of the most strikingly beautiful places in the Caribbean. The British and French fought for colonial control of the island on 14 occasions between the 17th and 19th centuries—with each side winning seven times—leading to it becoming known as “the Helen of the West Indies,” after the mythical Greek princess whose beauty sparked the Trojan War.

 

It can be hard to reconcile St. Lucia’s tropical splendor and Creole culture with lonesome cowboys and pickup trucks—indeed, the source of the island’s fascination with country is the subject of debate even among its islanders. The one thing nearly everyone recalls—whether you talk to elder shopkeepers or hipster DJs at downtown bars—is the childhood ritual of standing on their mothers’ feet and being taught to square-dance, as country music poured from the family radio.


Radio 100 Helen FM founder Steve Anius

Some locals say it all started back in the 1960s, when migrant workers traveled to Florida for seasonal farm work, returning with stacks of country music records. Others, like Steve Anius, have a different theory. Anius, a 76-year-old radio station owner, former politician and possibly the island’s foremost country aficionado, believes that St. Lucia first caught the bug during World War II, when two now inactive U.S. Air Force bases were established here.

 

“When I was a young boy, there were no FM broadcasts. We used to listen to AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) on shortwave radio,” Anius says. “That’s the station they used to broadcast to their servicemen overseas. They played country music almost nonstop. You’d open your front doors and could hear that everyone was listening to it.”  

 

It’s Sunday night high up in the hills, and Anius is on air at Radio 100 Helen FM, the station he founded in 1994. He’s leaning into the microphone, wearing a George Jones T-shirt and cowboy hat, surrounded by shelves of country music CDs. In the booth with him is fellow country DJ John Sexius, who’ll be taking the next shift, broadcasting until 3 or 4 in the morning, fielding telephone requests from folks around the island and the region, or even farther away.

 

“Every now and then, we’ll get a call from a trucker driving through the [American] South, tuned in through the internet,” says Sexius. “They compliment us for sticking to the classics.”

Leaving the station for the night, Anius drives north to the hills outside the capital city of Castries to a bar called Twist, perhaps the most popular venue for country dances on the island. Years ago, that honor belonged to a now shuttered place in the heart of the capital called Nashville Palace, which Anius rented from the city. It was just one of his many ventures in the local country music scene, from promoting parties to managing St. Lucia’s biggest country star, L.M. Stone.
 


Outdoor country dancing at night

It’s a mostly middle-aged crowd at Twist tonight, and the first thing that strikes you as you watch them move is how practiced they are. Where the younger crowd at Kalimé merely rocked and swayed to the tunes, here the dancers showcase an elaborate array of square-dancing styles. One couple, former square-dancing champions Lawrence Louison and Katisha Menal, prance and lockstep in a deliberate, almost ceremonial fashion. They met at a dance a decade ago and have been together ever since.

 

“I saw him dancing with another woman, and when he asked to dance with me, I said no, although I really wanted to say yes. I eventually said yes,” Menal says, grinning. “The music is very loving and calm. It’s good music to dance to if you really love someone.”

 

“It goes both ways,” Louison adds. “If your woman leaves you, it’s the best thing to listen to. It will help you with the sadness.” 

 

Although country has a long history in St. Lucia, it’s certainly not the only music that provides a soundtrack to island life. Reggae and dancehall music pump out of clubs and storefronts, and the streets come alive every July to the beat of soca music during the annual carnival. For some, this is what the island should sound like—local music for local people. In the early days in particular, Anius drew criticism for his efforts to jump-start a local country music cottage industry.

 

“Some people wrote to the newspaper saying we were trying to change the culture,” says Anius, sipping an orange juice. “There will always be a few people who don’t understand why we love it so much and say it’s redneck music, but I think about it like this: When a baby bird is born, its beak opens to eat even before its eyes have opened. It takes what it’s given. The simple truth is that country music has been around in St. Lucia before reggae was even created; it’s what we know.”

 

In fact, the island’s affinity for the genre may predate World War II. According to anthropologist Jerry Wever, square dancing bears a strong resemblance to kwadril, a banjo- and fiddle-led folk dance derived from the quadrille, a formal dance popular in 18th-century Europe. Wever argues that St. Lucians have “creolized” country and western in the same way they did with the music and dance of their former colonizers. What’s more, he says, the rhythms of country align with the habanera beat, prevalent in so many forms of Caribbean music.

 

For L.M. Stone, who got his start singing in his church at 9 years old, it’s not just familiar rhythms that make country music sound like home, but also a shared experience. St. Lucia is one of the most solidly Christian islands in the region; it is also one whose national identity is closely tied to life on the farm. In this regard, the life of the average St. Lucian in the 1950s wouldn’t have been vastly different from their contemporaries living in the American South.

“When the old folks first started hearing the country music the soldiers were playing,” says Stone, “they’d come from a long day of agricultural work, sit down at the side of the road on some rocks with their little transistor radios, make sure the antennas were all the way up, and tune in. Growing up, the life we lived was not a rich one, but our hardship and the words of the songs would blend very well.” 

 

The average St. Lucian country fan today is getting younger—and not so attached to the rural life as their parents and grandparents. Their taste in music, however, tends to be strictly old-school. At places like Kalimé, they have little time for the pop sheen of modern country. Songs about heartbreak and driving on the open road get extra mileage from the DJ booth.

 

Tonight, a young woman named Natalie is waiting to sing an old Tammy Wynette number. She seems puzzled by the very idea that there might be something incongruous about her musical tastes. “There’s nothing strange about it to me,” she says. “We Lucians just love country music, a long time now.”

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Stone is tuning his guitar poolside at the Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa, a hotel near the airport. “I think what really got me into these songs is the stories,” he says. “There’s always a story in a country song, and we relate to them.”

 

This evening’s show will be different from the weekend country and western parties attended by locals. Here, it’ll be mostly tourists watching Stone and his backing band, which is made up of three of his sons and his daughter. It’s a big show on a big stage, and throughout the evening, hotel staff decked out in cowboy attire will teach audience members how to line-dance to the songs.

 

For Stone, performing for a crowd of non-locals isn’t a stretch. Once, when applying for a visa to travel to the U.S., he ended up giving an impromptu performance when his interviewer asked the purpose of his visit. He says the entire embassy office gave him a standing ovation. But nothing compares to the time he made a pilgrimage to Nashville. 

 

“We went there to produce a CD, and there was a competition going on at a popular bar,” recalls Anius, who was then managing Stone. “L.M. was the only non-white person out of 50 contestants, and when he stepped onstage, everyone looked confused. Then, when he started singing, they all rushed to the front of the stage. One guy even kneeled and bowed to him. He won that night.”

 

Stone released his first album in 2000, and is currently working on a new one, a gospel-country album in the vein of the legendary Jim Reeves. He’s already played just about every venue he can in St. Lucia, so he’s hoping his songs will find a new audience abroad. It would make him the first St. Lucian country singer to reach an international audience, and he thinks it’s more than possible. After all, he’s as country as anybody else.

 

“My wife says I sometimes sing these old numbers in my sleep,” he says. “It’s in my blood.”

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