How Did Cariso Begin?

Cariso Virgin Islands

By Cedelle Petersen-Christopher

Cariso is a melodic memory of our African past. It is an art form that was brought to the Virgin Islands and the rest of the Caribbean during the enslavement of West Africans. It is a form of communication that was done secretly so that the slave master could not understand. It is an art form that was sung by the ancestors to transmit secret messages of rebellion; freedom songs of historical and current events; storytelling of long, long ago; and to make biting and stinging social commentary.

Cariso which means “carry it so” was sung by women exclusively in a call and response style accompanied by the men playing the barrel drums. At times the women would compete with each other and use their wit, poetic skills and singing ability. It is on the sugar cane fields, towns and villages, vegetable and fish markets this art form was practice throughout the Caribbean. Long ago it was called Cariso and today it is called Calypso.

Events are highlighted every year throughout the Virgin Islands remembering what took place through songs and stories:

  • The freedom songs tells the story of Moses Gotlieb ‘General Budhoe’ a courageous liberator who mastermind the revolt of July 3, 1848 known as Emancipation Day, which culminated the emancipation of the slaves.
  • The four daring young women, Mary Thomas(Queen Mary), Batty McBean(Queen Matilda), Susanna Abramson(Bottom Belly) and Axelina Solomon (Queen Agnes) who played the leading role in the bloody uprising of October 1, 1878 known as Contract Day/ Fireburn Day.
  • The memorable deeds of David Hamilton Jackson, ‘Black Moses’ a crucian teacher, judge, journalist, Minister and labor leader who gave the laborers hope on November 1, 1915 known as Liberty Day/ Bull and Bread Day.

Cariso Singers 1800-1900s

  • Mary Catherine Williams: Queen of Cariso
  • Marie Richards
  • Vivian McIntosh
  • Ida Joseph
  • Ethel McIntosh
  • Maude Andreas
  • Leona Brady Watson
  • Cedelle Petersen Christopher (Aminah)

Freedom Songs:

  • Clear De Road
  • Queen Mary
  • Do My People Do

There is a saying: “A people  without it’s history is a tree  without it’s root”

It’s important for me to share this art form that was handed down from generation to generation.  It must be continued for the  preservation of the history of the Virgin Islands. This is just a piece of our rich history. This song form must be embedded in the minds of our future generation. So that they  can become aware of the importance  of who we are, where we came from and where we are going. And most of all the importance of having pride in one self.


Cedelle Petersen-Christopher was born on the island of St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands to Edna and Pierpont Petersen. She was the tenth child of the family. Her father, Pierpont, was a guitar player with Stanley and the Ten Sleepless
Knights in the early years of which he played an important role in the naming of the band. Her mother sang in the choir at the Lutheran Church in Christiansted. Almost all of her siblings were in the music industry whether singing, drumming, limbo dancing, or playing bass you would hear the rhythms throughout the house.

Cedelle along with her sister, Sherryl Petersen, joined the St. Croix Talent Club in the sixties singing blues, R&B in local shows and traveling to many Caribbean islands. After graduating from high school she went to college and received a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of the Virgin Islands and a
Masters in Education from Cambridge College.

She worked as a school teacher for 31 years and retired in 2014. During those years as an educator she transferred her musical talent to the classroom. Singing, storytelling and puppetry were the tools that she used in her teaching. Outside of the classroom Cedelle joined a Cariso group under the leadership of Leona Watson, a well-known St. Croix Cariso singer and culture bearer. She learned the creole songs of freedom on St. Croix. When Cedelle retired she continued the art of Cariso by explaining the good days of traveling with Leona Watson for the Smithsonian Institute. Today she continues to share the Art of Cariso in the schools and throughout the community by sharing the richness of our culture.

Photography by Denise Bennerson


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