Carifesta: A Grand Family Reunion

This summer in Trinidad and Tobago the Caribbean stages its arts festival, Carifesta, for only the fifth time in two decades. Judy Raymond reports

  • Amerindian huts. British Library Board, courtesy Paria Publishing Co.
  • Photo by Jeffrey Chock/courtesy Carifesta V
  • Caribbean artists. Photos by Jeffrey Chock/ courtesy Carifesta V.
  • Amerindian figures. Photos: British Library Board, courtesy Paria Publishing
  • Amerindian figures. Photos: British Library Board, courtesy Paria Publishing
  • Caribbean artists. Photos by Jeffrey Chock/courtesy Carifesta V.
  • Photograph by Jeffrey Chock

Over the next few months, under the shadow of the hills of Trinidad’s Northern Range, an Amerindian village will rise from the plains. But the ajoupa huts, built out of clay packed onto woven branches, doesn’t mean that the Caribs are setting out to reconquer the islands Columbus claimed for Spain 500 years ago.

The Amerindian village in Arima, the town that is still the home of Trinidad’s small Carib community, is only one of the sites at which the arts and culture of the Caribbean are to be celebrated in a regional festival this year.

[pullquote]Carifesta will seek to illuminate life in the region both before and after Columbus’ arrival, the ‘encounter between two worlds’.[/pullquote]

It’s often said that nothing unites the islands of the Caribbean except cricket. Despite their geographical closeness and their common history, the islands take pride in their diversity. But every now and then they get together in what Trinidadian artist and musician Pat Bishop has described as “a grand family reunion”. Bishop was looking forward to Carifesta V, the fifth Caribbean festival of the arts, to be held in Trinidad and Tobago from August 9 to 16.

This year has been declared the Year of the Arts in Trinidad and Tobago, and it’s also the year in which the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World will be marked. But Columbus isn’t exactly a hero to some inhabitants of the Caribbean. He didn’t discover the New World, they point out – there were long-established civilisations in the region already, many of which were destroyed by the Europeans.

When he launched Carifesta V in November 1989, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, A. N. R. Robinson, stressed that the commemoration of the arrival of Europeans shouldn’t overshadow the contributions to world civilisation made by pre- and post-Columbus inhabitants of the Caribbean.

So Carifesta will seek to illuminate life in the region both before and after Columbus’ arrival, the “encounter between two worlds”.

The Carifesta slogan, selected after a regional contest, was created by Guyanese-born Erwin Brewster, who lives in Jamaica. It runs:

“Sea of sounds, medley of images, world of peoples, common heritage”. That heritage has inspired Caribbean literature, dance, and what is perhaps its best-known creation, music: calypso from Trinidad, reggae from] amaica, zouk from the French-speaking islands.

They can all be expected to feature in Carifesta V, and, since the festival is being held in Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival and steelband will also add their distinctive flavour. Carifesta will offer a rich mix of drama, visual arts, film and video, fashion, cuisine, exhibitions, lectures, symposia and workshops.

The highlights of past festivals have ranged from plays by distinguished writers like St. Lucian-born Derek Walcott and Barbadian George Lamming to spirited performances by the Bumm ‘n’ Chime drum band from Belize. The festival has also been an occasion to honour those who have made important contributions to Caribbean culture, such as calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow (less well known by his real name, Slinger Francisco), who was born in Grenada, but is now proudly claimed by Trinidad and Tobago; Jamaican sculptor Edna Manley; dancer Beryl McBumie of  Trinidad; and the poets Nicholas Guillen of Cuba and Airne Cesa ire of Martinique.

Trinidad and Tobago will be hosting Carifesta V on behalf of Caricom – the Caribbean Community – and the Caribbean peoples. In all, 45 countries are expected to take part. They include the 13 member countries of Caricom, together with other Caribbean countries, among them Cuba, Colombia and Haiti. The rest are Latin American countries and others with special links with the Caribbean: India, the UK, the USA, Nigeria, Spain, France, Portugal.

The idea of a Caribbean arts festival was first proposed at a convention of writers and artists held in 1970 in Guyana. Two years later, Carifesta I, billed as a grand cultural exposition, was held there, with almost 1,000 participants from 30 countries in the West Indies, Central and South America.

It was originally hoped that Carifesta would be held every two years, but the second festival, in Jamaica, did not take place until 1976. It was followed by a Cuban Carifesta in 1979, then Carifesta IV in Barbados in 1981. Jamaica was due to host the fifth Carifesta in 1988, but first economic problems and then the ravages of Hurricane Gilbert made it impossible. The islands of Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis and Antigua-Barbuda offered to host the festival in 1989, and planned to spread it between them to share the costs, but the idea wasn’t practicable. So now it’s Trinidad and Tobago’s turn.

Carifesta V is taking shape in the hands of a small full-time staff in Port of Spain, helped by national organisations and volunteers. The secretariat is headed by Margaret Walcott, former manager of Queen’s Hall, one of Trinidad’s oldest concert venues. A training programme for festival workers is under way, and the organisers have inspected venues all over the country to decide whether they are suitable for dance, drama or rehearsals, and what equipment will be needed.

Performances and exhibitions will take place at many sites, including theatres, churches, the University of the West Indies, and historic buildings like the turn-of-the-century Stollmeyer’s Castle, one of the “Magnificent Seven” mansions that face the Queen’s Park Savannah in the heart of Port-of-Spain, the nation’s capital.

Port of Spain will be the main focus of festival activities, but other events will take place in the southern city of San Fernando; in Scarborough, the capital of Tobago; in the central Trinidad town of Chaguanas; and in Arima, in the east.

All the participating countries with Amerindian communities have been invited to send representatives to the Amerindian centre in Arima. The ajoupa village to be built there on a five-acre site will feature a large structure for performances and smaller ones for displaying handicraft and for exhibitions on the art, lifestyles and legends of the people who lived in the Caribbean before Columbus came. Margaret Walcott explains: “The Amerindian village will be a statement to show the wealth and wisdom of the peoples who were here before Columbus.”

In Chaguanas, the site used to stage the Hindu Festival of Lights, Divali, will be the ethnic centre for dancers and other performances from various countries. “It’s a beautiful site, among the canefields and the hills,” says Walcott. San Fernando is “full of drama spaces”, and is Trinidad’s industrial centre, so hi-tech expositions will be held there.

Trinidad’s sister island, Tobago, will be a microcosm of the whole festival: performers will travel between the two islands. Though the festival itself will last only eight days, the accompanying exhibitions will go on for a longer period. An estimated 2,500 performers will take part in the main festival, and in addition to the official programme there will be dozens of fringe activities. As well as individual performances, there will be grand opening and closing ceremonies and a special command performance in which many groups will take part.

An event on this scale requires an enormous amount of planning, and past Carifestas were ‘criticized for lack of organization. Margaret Walcott is taking one day at a time. “If you thought of it as a global event, you would run screaming down the road,” she says, contemplating the logistics. “But,” she adds hopefully, “this country is accustomed to mass performances.”

She’s talking about Trinidad’s annual Carnival, in which thousands of people take part and in which every year order arises out of what could easily have been chaos. With its years of experience, Trinidad and Tobago seems the logical place to stage an event on a similarly epic scale. And if Carifesta V runs as smoothly as Carnival, it will be a spectacular success.