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Island Expressions: Gylchris Sprauve

Dec. 21, 2008 — There is nothing typical about contemporary Christian musical artist Gylchris Sprauve.
Sprauve has all the control and power over his voice of any of the world's most famous tenors, including Jose Carreras or Placido Domingo, but he uses his power for more a lot more than opera and contemporary Christian music.
Typical or not, the classically trained tenor is getting a lot of attention in the territory these days with the growing popularity of his song "Do They Know." The song is written from the point of view of a Virgin Islander serving in armed forces in Iraq. The song expresses the thoughts of a soldier who is putting his life on the line for a country that offers him only second-class citizenship in the form of legislative representation.
The song, especially in the wake of the election and with the ongoing war in Iraq, has special resonance with Virgin Islanders.
Sprauve has been on air on WSTA, and talked about the meaning of "Do They Know."
"'Do They Know' was written from what I believed would be the state of mind of some V.I. soldier fighting in Iraq during Christmastime," Sprauve said. "I have always deplored the fact that territories cannot vote, but yet our young men and women have served faithfully in the U.S. Armed Forces ever since the acquisition of the islands. It really hit home when one of our soldiers from St. Croix was killed in service. I imagined that the soldier must be somewhat confused, asking himself, 'For whom am I fighting?'"
The song speaks of the soldier's inner conflict. Virgin Islanders will recognize phrases from "The Star Spangled Banner" and "The V.I. Anthem." The song finishes with, 'And pledge allegiance forever true.'
"I love being a Virgin Islander, and I love being an American," Sprauve said. "I still struggle with the fact that there is not a reason to prevent our soldiers from dying in combat, but there is, in the minds of lawmakers up on high, a reason why we cannot vote. I wasn't raised to accept the world "as is." Music has a way of saving, inspiring, and healing, so I decided to use music to convey this message."
Sprauve described his brand of music as mostly Christian contemporary music.
"CCM is basically Christian music that utilizes popular styles to convey the message about a meaningful life through Christ," Sprauve said. "It has less of a singularly ethnic connection like gospel does, as gospel is typically Afro-American religious music. CCM can be based upon just about any style of music from any country or ethnic group. I'm also a classical singer."
Recently Sprauve has performed in the Washington, D.C., area, and earlier this year spent several weeks on tour in Brazil, launching his CD Finish Line in Portuguese.
Sprauve will appear Tuesday before Rotary Sunrise at the Holiday Inn, and on Christmas Eve for midnight mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Sprauve's musical education began at home, with both grandmothers singing in the V.I. community.
"My family as a whole did not perform professionally," Sprauve said.
But there is some musical component that runs through the Sprauve family, with relatives such as flautist Larry Sprauve, living in Michigan, and Larry Benjamin, who sang in New York City with various opera productions as a chorister at the Metropolitan Opera, and as a choral conductor.
"I've another young cousin, Melita Etienne, who is a mezzo-soprano and is soon to complete her bachelor's degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro," Sprauve said.
Sprauve's formal music education started early at the University of the Virgin Islands — as a freshman in high school. Once he graduated from high school, he majored in piano and voice at UVI, later transferring to the University of Iowa, where he received a degree in vocal perfomance. He followed with musical studies in Salzburg, Austria, and later received a fellowship to study at the University of Maryland, where he earned a master's degree in vocal performance/pedagogy.
"It's not a typical island singing path to follow, but I was never raised to be or do what was typical," Sprauve said. "In our home, my siblings and I were encouraged to read, to keep travel journals, and Mom was frequently experimenting with lots of different recipes, so we grew up with fewer of the typical island meals than most kids in the Virgin Islands normally would."
Sprauve remembers watching a broadcast from "Live from Lincoln Center" on WTJX Channel 13 as a kid. Lincoln Center is the home of the Metropolitan Opera.
"The experience of hearing opera singers using their voices in such a tremendous way gripped my attention," Sprauve said. "Then some years later, I had the chance to hear other local singers like the late tenor, Dale Wallace, and the soprano, Deborah Young. I admired the wide range of dynamics and vocal prowess that they had. I wanted that, too!"
Sprauve plays the piano and picked up organ along the way out of necessity.
"I've never had an organ lesson, but the cool thing about growing up in the Virgin Islands was that the frequent lack of resources forced me to be resourceful," Sprauve said.
Sprauve's CD, Finish Line, is available for download on iTunes and Amazon.com. His videos can be found on YouTube.
Sprauve is always working on a project. Last year, he did a short undertaking of hymns in memory of his late aunt, Huldah A. Smith.
"Many of the hymns I recorded were among her favorites," Sprauve said. "Then there's 'Teach Me,' a single that I recorded in honor of my mother, Candace Smith-Sprauve, celebrating her retirement from the V.I. Department of Education after 30-some years of teaching."
His latest release is another single with two songs, "Do They Know?" and "Meen Wukkin' on Christmas Day," the second of which is based on a poem by the late V.I. poet Corey Emmanuel.
Sprauve says that these days he's listening to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.
"I just sat down and listened to Number Six recently," Sprauve said. "Ismael Rivera, an Afro-Puerto Rican legend, is another favorite; Ruben Blades, for his creative genius; Joni Mitchell — believe it or not — one of her last albums, Both Sides Now is so great!
Sprauve says he gets great inspiration from these artists for his ever-growing skills as an orchestrator.
"Then, there's Donnie McClurkin, Bob Carlisle and Kirk Franklin," Sprauve said. "I love the way they tell stories with their music, and their musical arrangements have substance — something that's so lacking in much of today's music."
Sprauve has criticized Christian music for becoming uninteresting and dumbed-down.
"The microwave generation has gotten accustomed to getting everything quickly and easily," Sprauve said. "This has bred a certain level of impatience with the process of learning how to play and process music well. Much of popular music is canned, a bunch of loops over and over, little or no substance, and with little challenge to either the performer or the listener. Everyone has got to run their camp as they deem fit, but I need more. There are times when I want to listen without my feelers on, but that shouldn't mean that everything should be brainless."
To combat this trend, Sprauve feels that teaching music should be a priority in the schools.
"All kids should be encouraged to learn to read music," Sprauve said. "Research has shown that music positively affects brain development. When we will have cultivated a musically literate group of young people, they will be sufficiently equipped to make intelligent musical decisions. This will result in musically intelligent compositions — music with substance."
As to improving
musical education in the territory, Sprauve may be underestimating his influence.
"All I can do is bark," Sprauve said. "I don't have strings that I can pull per se, but from my own experience as a child, it was kind of like learning how to read books. I found I could figure out what it sounded like by looking at the score in terms of positively impacting the growth of a concert-going audience."
He may not have strings to pull for now, but who knows what will happen when decision makers hear "Do They Know"?
The "they" in "Do They Know" refers to many different people.
"They" are lawmakers and those charged with the responsibility of administrating over the Virgin Islands and other territories in a way that local senators, congressmen and governors cannot. "They" also refers to the many other soldiers from the 50 States and the District of Columbia who are able to choose the commander in chief. Finally, "they" refers to the millions of Americans in the 50 States who are totally oblivious to the second-class-citizen reality that citizens in the territories live from day to day, Sprauve said.
"As I've just officially released the song last week, I haven't had the opportunity to chat with any of our lawmakers concerning it as yet," Sprauve said.
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