Skiffle brings Trinidad’s music, culture to Sweet Briar

Posted on August 15, 2014 by Jennifer McManamay

Trinidad's famed Skiffle Steel Orchestra will perform at Sweet Briar on Sept. 11. Photos by Tony Howell. Trinidad’s famed Skiffle Steel Orchestra will perform at Sweet Briar on Sept. 11. Photos by Tony Howell.

Sweet Briar’s Babcock Season will open with music by Trinidad’s famous Skiffle Steel Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11. About 15 of the group’s 100-plus members will perform a concert open to the public in Murchison Lane Auditorium at Babcock Fine Arts Center.

When they do, it will culminate a week of activities that mean Jeff Jones can check off two more big items from a to-do list he started when he arrived at Sweet Briar two years ago: bringing Skiffle to campus to perform and beginning a cultural exchange with the potential to transcend from mere understanding to “intercultural competence” — in other words, to produce an “actionable skill,” he says.

His ultimate objective is to achieve a “genuine, sustained” relationship with Skiffle and in so doing, further open the world to Sweet Briar students. He checked off the first major box toward this goal last August when he and his Trinidadian collaborators created Skiffle USA, Sweet Briar’s own steel pan orchestra.

Skiffle, based in San Fernando, is known around the world for its steel pan music. It has repeatedly won Trinidad’s prestigious Panorama competition in the traditional category and the World Steelband Music Festival. The music is indigenous to Trinidad and reflects the country’s particular culture and history. The orchestra takes its name from the genre of music known as “skiffle” and defined by the use of found instruments. Today’s steel pans evolved from discarded 55-gallon oil drums, long abundant in the former British colony where oil and gas are economic mainstays.

Jeff Jones (right) performs with Skiffle at the 2013 Panorama. Jeff Jones (right) performs with Skiffle at the 2013 Panorama.

Jones, an assistant professor of music and director of the Sweet Briar Orchestra, knows a lot about Skiffle. He has both performed with the group and studied the special role of steel orchestras in Trinidadian society for his Ph.D. in musicology — research he has continued at Sweet Briar.

Jones traveled to Trinidad three times in 2013 to conduct ethnomusicological fieldwork for an eventual book and collaborative music education project. The latter he envisioned involving Sweet Briar students and young Trinidadian musicians — the genesis of his to-do list. Some of this he hopes to see come to fruition as he plans for the group’s visit to include classroom exchanges with music, religion and international affairs students, as well as practices and performances with Skiffle USA.

It’s all part of a vision he laid out before leaving for Trinidad over the winter 2013 break. He said he wanted to establish a sister orchestra at Sweet Briar “grounded in the repertoire, rehearsal practices and performance contexts of Skiffle Steel Orchestra.”

He also mentioned exploring southern Trinidad as a study abroad destination and bringing Skiffle to campus.

“Musical performance, cultural history, public policy, community development, the possibilities for intercultural exchange and education and their implications for scholarly and creative life at Sweet Briar are rich,” he said at the time. “I can’t wait to see the directions our students will take this endeavor!”

Seating for the Skiffle concert on Sept. 11 is general and is free for the SBC community. Non-SBC admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students and free for children younger than 12. To reserve tickets, contact the box office at (434) 381-6120 or Credit card orders may be placed at Tickets go on sale Sept. 8. For more information, email Shelbie Filson at