Artists in Residency: A West End Musical Institute

After months of a holding pattern, we’ve managed to get moving with the Artist Residency at the Caribbean Museum Center For the Arts in Frederiksted, St. Croix. Our flight, stopping in San Juan, PR and landing in Frederiksted, St. Croix took us over many blue roofs and damaged structures. Now that we are directly working with affected kids we’re getting a sense for how long the effects of this past hurricane season will have changed the lives of nearly all the island residents in the region.  Things are certainly better – power is mostly up in the two main towns, water services have been restored in places – but with many friends who live not far out of either of the two towns on the islands being told they may be without those services until March or after, you get a sense for how serious this is. Although the damage and struggles that folks here are having to endure is nothing we’d would wish on anyone, the damage to the local school system is even more detrimental.

Badly damaged home just South of Frederiksted, St. Croix

Our initial plan for this residency was to come in mid-September and work with children from Arthur Richards Elementary, the school local to CMCArts, a museum in Frederiksted with lovely acoustics and a wonderful grand piano, and help supplement their music education with some techniques in sight singing, sight reading and writing music along with some jam sessions and free concerts throughout the month for local residents. Both Irma an Maria have taken their toll to elicit some challenges in making this all happen, but we’ve gone to the school to meet the students, and are now in the first week of the Residency – and decidedly glad we still moved forward with the plan.

A severely damaged school is seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

The children from this particular school have been told that the building has been condemned – yes, unusable and slated for destruction – and are currently sharing the building of the local High School (Complex High School) in split-session format. Which means that both they and the the High School students are not receiving a full education, and won’t until the situation of a new building is rectified – even on the well-stocked mainland this could take quite a while, and some of these kids will miss opportunities normally granted during this point in their lives. It would be a shame for them to miss out, especially considering the many problems these kids face in just thinking about the environmental concerns that Climate Change brings to the Caribbean as a whole.

The fact of the matter is that regardless of the cause, Climate Change IS happening. Never before have we seen such activity. 52″ of rain on the great Houston area from Harvey and two Category 5 hurricanes following a path so close within just a few weeks it made us cringe. Just after Irma, St. Croix and Puerto Rico were acting as extremely important staging grounds for aid to the ravaged islands of the North Virgins (US and British), Anguilla and St. Martin – enter Maria and everything changed. Infrastructure, schools, roads, water and sewage treatment, shipping – all intrinsically disrupted in islands that already have serious logistics issues when it comes to what modern society deems as “the basics.” The results of climate change for the region? It would seem that small and isolated populations are being made to deal directly with the effects brought on by the world as a whole. It’s high time that we gave some serious thought as to how global society takes care of “it’s own,” as in “the human race.” It’s not the result of a proxy war implemented by far-away politicians, not a land grab seeking exploitation of mineral or water rights, and very unfairly weighted onto the shoulders of the few. We needn’t mention what we think the actions of the many should be in response.

“Introduction” day with the Arthur Richards students, taken at Complex High School

There is light, though – the population here is highly resillient – the region has been through so many changes, land grabs and proxy wars over the last few centuries it takes a PhD to fully understand it all. The people have been through many disasters and calamities, and yet remain a non-violent people with rich culture and amazing laid back attitude. The children are no different – they are dealing with this latest round better than most adults stateside. They know folks are doing their best, and just keep moving on day by day. In most cases, their talent and pleasant attitude are truly noteworthy. Their propensity for talent in the arts is in most cases quite astonishing.

“West End Jazz Institute” with students from Complex High School. Autumn Leaves, anyone?

Along with the Elementary and Junior High students of Arthur Richards, we have decided to do some extra time with the High School students from Complex – we found a group of kids from the band hanging out with some jazz fake books they acquired on St. Thomas, and have put together a “jazz workshop” series with them. For High School kids on a Caribbean island, they’ve all got such a great handle on picking up jazz standards that not doing it would be a crime.

Also included in our stint here is a series of free concerts on Sunday afternoons in the gallery space – again, outfit with a lovely grand piano and amazing acoustics. The luck of the building being a couple of hundred years old and built like a tank got it through the storms much better than newer structures, which makes it a beacon of hope in the area where so many are still without roofs, without power. The response from many friends we have here is that having programs like this really help to center their minds, get out of disaster mode and focus again on their individual places in their community just through a moment of relaxation and enjoyment. For us, that is the greatest honor of all, that the music we share can positively alter one’s state of mind.

Our goal is to keep raising funds to continue the programming. We’ve acquired fiscal sponsorship from CMCArts, a 501 3(c) organization, who has agreed to manage funding for the programming. If we are successful, we can help to make this a part of the “new normal,” and be a part of positive change in the area during this difficult time.

Modern Day Gypsy



Not something you pretend – nor is it any sort of joke. Depending on who you are, the very word brings a host of emotions. For some, thoughts of traveling to and fro without any hangups, for others visions of no good bums avoiding real jobs and real life. For some it evokes family – one where the roots were pulled up in some distant place and there was no choice but to set off in search of a prosperous life elsewhere. One thing is for sure, the real world is not in books, not in maps, not in your mailbox or here on the web. It’s wherever you are at any given moment – and as a free human being on this planet, I get to choose when and where that place is.

Like every other life choice, this one has it’s consequences. When you make your bed, you’ve got to sleep in it. No consierge to complain to, no labor board to help you. You must make everything work or be miserable and go back to the box, beholden to a boss, a train schedule, the banks. This is not for us – we know. We were there for many years, struggling to keep food on the table while chasing our passions. Like being a drunk with only vinegar to drink, the taste quickly sours and the gut becomes rife with discomfort.

We certainly didn’t set out to become gypsies of any sort. We both grew up in the bosom of America’s great dream, nestled in our beds under the watchful eye of our families we experienced only that which they and our surrounding society desired us to. Our setting off was quite the disturbance – first demanding answers to why-how’s and where-to-fors, then harboring a somewhat disconserted attempt to comprehend the nature of our journey. In it, we’ve learned volumes about ourselves, our families, our upbringing and our society as “modern Americans.”

Truth is, maybe I’m a conspiracy theorist of sorts, of possibly a soul born at the wrong time. I enjoy real freedom and all the struggle that goes along with it, the end of which one reaches into their pocket and pulls out a group of skillsets that you never imagined were coming to you. As necessity is the mother of invention, willingness will drive out competence every time. In my estimation, freedom gets you to a place that most often presents itself as a conundrum – at times choices must be made to simply “deal” with the ramifications of the freedom you’ve chosen. In our case, boat life trumps all.image

Safety of family and crew, seaworthiness of our vessel – all are tied up in a neat little package of “get to work and fix it NOW or you don’t make the next port.” That’s how we live, how we support our lives. Food, parts, musical gear, funds for the goods that we sell, consumables that the vessel requires; and I haven’t even mentioned the calls and emails yet. The ones that get the gig, convincing everyone from the small venue owner to the festival committee that we belong on the bill. Our experience of boat life has truly been a great window into the mechanics of the “have-to’s and the have-not’s,” and the lot of baggage that goes along with. What it has not meant is borrowing what we do not have, taking what is not ours, and complaining when things do not go our way.

If freedom means nothing else, it is a testament to will. Pitting yourself against the “odds” that your peers may bring up and realizing that life is tough no matter how and where you conduct its detail. And with the 1,000 ways there are to “skin the proverbial cat,” the most valuable lesson is to realize for yourself which way best suits your happiness, the one that will allow you to become the individual you see when you look at the mirror and only wish you could throw a line to and pull through to stand next to you and then to meld with, blending both the reflection and reality.


Photo: Sam Neels

What is it that begets freedom? Money and wealth? Family? Societal staus? Education? What if it were just the ability to make the descision you deem best at the time without having to answer to anyone but yourself for it? Such a simple thing, it seems, but a complicated path no matter what society you live “in.” In some the mere reading of a particular book will get you thrown in the kettle. In others, the more ridiculous you act it seems the more you are rewarded – humanity’s rhyme and reason have beeon quite off for some millenia. There are so many permutations of this – thin vs fat, white vs brown, poor vs rich. That will never come to an end, nor will the changes in what is thought of as desireable to any given society.

What also never changes are the possibilities that come when individuals shed the norms and make an attempt to just be human – to live, to forage, converse and produce from within their souls and minds a thing unique to their own experience – no ads, no sponsorships, no awards and no glory. Existance at its simplest. We then have to look at our universe as a thing upon which we have a profound effect, where our interactions with every aspect of it mean something like a map we leave behind for those who remain.


Photo: Jan Hein

In our wake, the wake of the gypsy, we hope to leave our humanity with a sprinkle of art to remind those we encounter of their own. We are living proof that if you put in the hard work, you too can pay the bills.


Christel and Jarad Astin

Stell & Snuggs