Pick of the Crop: Barbados’ Crop Over

Once the feast that marked the end of the sugar harvest, the Carnival-like Crop Over festival is now the biggest event in Barbados' calendar

  • Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • Barbados's 1992 Calypso Monarch, Invader No. 3. Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • Lady Anne, Barbados's Calypso Queen 1992. Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • Photograph by Eleanor Chandler
  • 46

There’s an old Barbadian expression for walking the hot midday pavement, usually on a tedious mission: “slapping tar”. But come each August in this most easterly Caribbean island of Barbados, everybody slaps tar with glee.

It all starts in July with a very civilised ceremony, and culminates three weeks later in a day-long bacchanal of colourful costumes, revelry and street dancing. It’s a celebration that has caught on like wildfire. And wildfire is one good way to express what Barbados’s Crop Over festival is all about. Whether you observe or join in the fun, it’s a hot time and everyone comes away quenched.

Today’s Crop Over festival marks the end of the sugar crop harvest, just as it did 200 years ago. Back then, it also heralded the start of the “hard times”, a lean period of scarce work and scarce money. But today the festival no longer bodes hard times. Instead it celebrates life, in a pot-pourri of events, food and music that marks a high point of the island’s year and touches virtually every facet of its life and culture.

Music pervades the Crop Over. From folk to the fast-paced Caribbean beat of soca, music is everywhere, bewitching even the most stiff-jointed. The addictive rhythms of calypso storm the airwaves, sending just about everybody into fits of head-bobbing and body-weaving.

Yet Barbados’s own music flourishes too. Roving Tuk bands wend their way through the crowds at many Crop Over events, often dressed in hilarious attire. Tuk bands play lilting and captivating rhythms, delighting young and old alike.

Unique in format and cadence, Tuk is native to Barbados. Spirited musicians in small bands play a trio of rhythms using a kettle drum, bass drum and penny-whistle flute. The sequence begins with a slow waltz, then moves into a march rhythm, and concludes in an almost frenetic African beat.

Dr Elliott Parris, Director of the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) which organises Crop Over, says this unique series of rhythms shows Tuk’s historical roots. “It is an amalgamation of European and African musical influences, using instruments from the British military and from Africa.”

Meanwhile, from the June opening of the weekend calypso shows (called tents, as in Trinidad) singers polish their renditions and prepare to battle for a position in the eliminations leading up to the big Pick-o-de-Crop Calypso Finals, held a few days before the Grand Kadooment.

While the cadence of calypso seduces, the lyrics attract, for their light-hearted wit or biting truths. Calypsonians often fire sharp rhythmical barbs at society’s ills and wrongdoers in social commentary that is sometimes humorous, sometimes deadly sober. And audiences from bank managers to school children take to them like kids watching someone shoot spitballs at a teacher.

Though music fires Crop Over, events keep it alive.

This year’s Crop Over theme is “Culture: A Unifying Force”. Says the NCF director: “Crop Over is a coming together of the people. And although times are hard now, people still look forward to it. In hard times, festivals are even more important. Crop Over is not just a way to blow off steam. It is also a spiritual renewal.”

Crop Over begins with the ceremonial delivery of the last canes, an event that interweaves the festival’s historical roots with modern realities. One of the key traditions of the Crop Over, this ceremony was originally held on individual plantations at the end of the sugar cane harvest in the 19th century. According to Dr Parris, new research suggests that Crop Over may be one of the oldest festivals of the post-Columbus era in this hemisphere.

The last load of reaped canes would arrive in the plantation yard on a decorated donkey cart. The festivities then centred around a role reversal, with the planters feasting and serving the workers. The event also included a special blessing, which still takes place today – it is now given by the Archbishop of the very colourful and vibrant religious sect, the Spiritual Baptists. While many sects frown on mingling religion with dance and music, the Spiritual Baptists embrace it; Dr Parris says they are “totally involved in Crop Over and very much at ease with it, adding a lot of colour to the festivities.”

These days, a pageant highlighting an aspect of Barbados history and the crowning of a king and queen of the crop – the field-workers who cut and pile the largest amount of cane for the season – have replaced the planter-worker switch.

With Crop Over officially launched, attention switches to a series of daytime events: the Crop Over Promenade, the Bajan Culture Village, the Decorated Cart Parade and Tuk band competition, and the Bridgetown Market. While each offers its own special flavour, the primary focus is on food, craft and entertainment, the spirit of Barbados at its best.

Bridgetown market is the biggest of these events. The sharp aromas of simmering Bajan and international food mix with the craft, art, fashion and souvenir stalls that replace the normal traffic on a mile-long four-lane stretch of Spring Garden Highway.

The Decorated Cart Parade, the most colourful of these pre-Kadooment events, takes another leaf from the book of island tradition. Donkey carts today are defined as “anything on wheels”, as Dr Parris remarks, and visitors will see everything from fanciful bicycles to elaborate floats weaving through the streets on their way to the lively Tuk band competition.

Several art and craft exhibitions open for public viewing too; this year the Best of Fine Craft Exhibition will highlight basketry, weaving, paper making, flower arranging and fashion accessories, all using local materials.

Culture bonds with history for the two newest events. The NCF aims to bring all cultural forms into the festival; so a folk concert was introduced in 1990, commemorating the anniversary of the 1937 riots which were seen as the beginning of the democratisation of Barbados’s political system. The folk show includes song, dance, drama and chorale, and its popularity is reflected in its extension to two nights. Local literary artists perform their work at another event introduced in 1990 to commemorate Emancipation Day, the abolition of slavery.

Says Dr Parris: “The point of introducing these two programmes was to give increased emphasis to the real meaning of Crop Over. Traditionally, Crop Over celebrated the end of the sugar cane harvest, but today it also marks the end of the plantation system of exploitation and slave labour. It is all connected with the history of sugar and these two events bring that element into Crop Over, making the festival even more significant.”

Crop Over in its early form continued until World War II, when celebrations halted. There was a modified revival in the 1970s, when the Board of Tourism brought it back as a way of entertaining visitors. But the lack of authenticity and local participation prevented it from regaining serious popularity. The Ministry of Culture took charge of Crop Over in 1979 and developed it for Barbadians as a cultural event, thus restoring it more closely to its roots.

After its formation in 1983, the NCF was given the mandate to organise Crop Over, and today the festival is Barbados’s largest local event. It has even eclipsed the winter tourist season for the past two years, attracting more visitors than at any other time of year.

One reason is the festival’s family-oriented calendar. The focus is on the kids at Junior Kadooment, held a week before Grand Kadooment. Many band designers create bands for the children, and bring them on stage to parade before judges in Grand Kadooment style. Visitors too can enter their children by contacting the NCF, who will put parents in touch with costume band designers.

The Junior Calypso Monarch competition is the youngsters’ version of the Pick-o-de-Crop calypso finals, with all the suspense and excitement of any adult competition. It has quickly become a popular and well-contested show.

Meanwhile the calypso competition heats up for the first round of national eliminations in late July, leading up to Crop Over’s biggest show, the Pick-o-de-Crop finals.

Then on August 2 comes Grand Kadooment, the Carnival- style event for which Crop Over is best known. The excitement, pageantry and revelry make for an unforgettable day. An endless stream of costumed bands parade before the judges, competing for prizes in several categories.

The bands have grown over the years, with costumes becoming more elaborate and detailed. It is not uncommon to see vividly costumed bands of more than 450 people, all depicting a central theme. In carnival style, revellers slap tar the five-mile route to Spring Garden, dancing and partying to the calypsos which are themselves competing fiercely for the Tune of the Crop title – the most played song along the route.

It’s merriment and revelry all the way, with tightly packed crowds rimming the entire route to see the bands in their glory. By mid-afternoon, the bands and spectators all converge on Spring Garden and the crowd easily hits 100,000 as the merriment continues into the night.

It’s something to see, and something even bigger to take part in. The crowds of visitors returning for Crop Over each year seem to have figured that out.


June Weekend calypso tents open, gearing up for a hotly contested Calypso King competition

July 10 Ceremonial delivery of last canes to Applewhaites Plantation, St Thomas; programme of entertainment

July 11 Crop Over Promenade, Queen’s Park. Food, fashion and activities depicting the Barbados of old

July 11 Opening of Best of Fine Craft Exhibition at Queen’s Park Gallery

July 14 Opening of Best of Fine Art Exhibition at Grand Salle, Central Bank

July 17 Bajan Culture Village at King George V Memorial Park. A day of local craft, food, culture and entertainment

July 18 Decorated Cart Parade through Bridgetown, leading to Tuk Band Competition at Spring Garden

July 23 Pick-o-de-Crop semi-finals: the last stage of elimination for the Calypso Monarch competition

July 24 Junior Kadooment, National Stadium. A day of costumed fun and competition for children

July 25 Junior Calypso Monarch Competition. The young set has its chance to shine in calypso

July 27/8 Folk Concert: all forms of folk entertainment

July 29 An evening of literary arts to commemorate Emancipation Day, the formal abolition of slavery

July 30 Pick-o-de-Crop Finals. The seven finalist calypsonians come up against the reigning Monarch for the top prize and purse

July 31 Bridgetown Market, Spring Garden Highway. A day of craft, art, food and souvenir stalls

August 1 Cohobblopot, National Stadium. Crowning of the best costumed King and Queen of Bands, with a variety of local entertainment

August 2 Grand Kadooment. Judging of costumed bands at National Stadium, parade of bands along a five mile route to Spring Garden Highway. Dancing, music and revelry into the night. Judging of Tune-of-de-Crop, the most played tune on the road, takes place along the route