From the air, the island of St Kitts resembles a guitar serenely afloat in the shimmering Caribbean sea. It’s a fitting venue for a festival which, in its four years of existence, has delivered a balanced line-up of the Caribbean’s best-recognised sounds — salsa, soca, zouk and reggae — alongside the evolving genres of Caribbean jazz and gospel. International stars like Hugh Masekela, Chaka Khan, Bobby Caldwell, Earl Klugh and Kool and The Gang have graced the stages of the St Kitts Music Festival over the years, as has Kittitian talent ranging from Crucial Bankie and his thoughtful lyrics to the reggae group Small Axe Band.
The St Kitts Music Festival was launched in 1996 to boost tourism in the off-season, and promoters were pleasantly surprised at how well the inaugural effort was received. “I had been confident we would lose our shirts, but we didn’t,” says G. A. Dwyer Astaphan, St Kitts’s Minister of Tourism and chairman of the Festival. “Whatever losses there were, were quite digestible considering the mileage the country got. We wanted people to see what we are: a beautiful island with a rich cultural heritage, not a conventional tourist-type operation.”
Located at the northern end of the Caribbean’s Leeward island chain, the federation of St Kitts and Nevis (Nevis, to the south-east, is separated from St Kitts by a two-mile channel) has a combined population of 46,000. The larger island, St Kitts (originally St Christopher), was the first English settlement in the Caribbean (1623). Its varied terrain — volcanic peaks in the north, covered with lush green forest, and a string of black, brown and white sand beaches along the south-eastern peninsula — allows for a wide variety of activities, ranging from rain forest hikes to snorkelling and scuba diving. Sugar is the island’s principal export, and green fields of sugar cane are a distinguishing feature of the Kittitian landscape.
The capital, Basseterre, has a vast harbour which provides docking facilities for a growing number of cruise ships. Basseterre’s narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture offer a charming, old-world ambiance which has vanished from many Caribbean destinations.
This year’s Music Festival took place in late June at the Fort Thomas Hotel, on the site of a historic fortress that once protected peaceful Basseterre from sea pirates and other undesirables. Damaged in September 1998 by Hurricane Georges, the Fort Thomas wasn’t operating as a hotel, but provided a spectacular setting for the music. Against a backdrop of tranquil blue water, with Nevis looming in the distance, a large white-topped stage was erected at the edge of Basseterre’s Great Bay. The festival’s four nights ran smoothly, with swift band changes and well-paced performances.
Most of the 5,000 patrons at Thursday’s Soca Night brought their rags (many of them blue and gold, courtesy of St Kitts’s Carib Brewery) and flags, and kept them high in the air throughout the evening. Trinidad’s Roy Cape All Stars, with celebrated saxophonist Cape making his third festival appearance, displayed the effervescent, intricate soca arrangements which have placed them at the forefront of the Caribbean music scene. The band’s outstanding five-piece brass section provided dynamic support for lead singer (and Trinidad’s 1999 Soca Monarch) Kurt Allen as he displayed his vocal versatility in advance of the mayhem elicited by his mega-hit Dust Dem.
Barbados’s Allison Hinds was in electrifying form, leading the band Square One through their vast repertoire of soca hits, with the crowd obeying each and every instruction to jump, wave and shout. The lesser known Jam Band from St Thomas, making their festival debut, were equally engaging, and popular local heroes Nu Vybes played their self-described “street style” music in a turbo-charged set encompassing soca, reggae and R&B.
On Friday night, Jamaica’s Beenie Man ran the gamut from rollicking gospel to hard-core dancehall slackness, flavoured with playful banter and nimble dance moves. But it was the performance of openers Jumbalassy, from Seattle, Washington, which provided the greatest surprise of the evening, possibly of the entire festival. Jumbalassy (named after the carnival character jab molassie) are eight outstanding musicians who segue seamlessly from soca to ska to reggae. St Kitts-born lead singer Alex Duncan was virtually unknown to the crowd, but his vocal versatility and stage moves were as mesmerising (and nearly as well received) as Machel Montano’s on a Carnival Tuesday night.
Another pleasant surprise was Valerie Adams and The Dimension Band from New Jersey. Adams possesses a voice as expansive as the Caribbean Sea and seemed quite comfortable pouring her own life experiences into heart-rending songs, then offering soothing words of affirmation. Her assured performance stood in sharp contrast to that of R&B chanteuse Shanice, who, despite a powerful voice, several hit songs and stunning good looks, was at a loss as to where she wanted to go musically.
Saturday night, which in previous years was devoted to jazz and blues, opened with the sweet pan-jazz sound of Trinidad’s Othello Mollineaux, followed by the lilting samba rhythms of Paul Peress and the band Step It Brazil. Baltimore’s Dru Hill had been heavily promoted and attracted a young crowd dominated by screaming teenage girls. His soulful four-part harmonies were spectacular, and were heightened by special effects like strobe lights and fireworks.
But Saturday evening belonged without question to Jamaica’s Beres Hammond, that peerless chronicler of heartbreak and other romantic woes. Beres’s sublime, soul-wrenching collection of reggae classics, from She Loves Me Now to his chart-topping tribute to Jamaican sound systems Can You Play Some More, were more effective than any amount of pyrotechnics, and at 3:30 a.m. he had a crowd of nearly 6,000 (the largest of the entire festival) on their feet clamouring for more.
Caribbean gospel gains new recruits daily, but Gospel Night at the Festival was by poorly attended. Still, Kittitian quintet The Majestics and Shine The Light from the Virgin Islands gave lively performances, weaving soca and reggae rhythms into their songs of praise. The Dallas, Texas-based Gregg O’Quinn, and Joyful Noyze’s raise-the-roof gospel, delivered powerfully uplifting messages, and Jamaican songbird Carlene Davis, who switched from reggae to gospel-reggae several years ago, interspersed her songs with Biblical recitations. Her soul-stirring renditions of Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art brought the Festival to a inspired conclusion.
The 2000 edition of the St Kitts Music Festival takes place from June 29-July 2 next year