It’s an August Friday night in the Leeward island of St Kitts. The previous night, Warner Park in Basseterre, possibly the best preserved Georgian capital in the English Caribbean, was electric with the opening ceremony of Carifesta VII, the regional arts and culture festival. For the next nine days, St Kitts, and its even tinier sister isle Nevis, will be home to artists, dance, theatre and folk groups, poets, writers, film makers, intellectuals, cultural activists and theorists who’ve arrived from most Caribbean territories, from Suriname in the south to Cuba in the north.
Any Caribbean gathering is a signal for music and dance, and since Carifesta is the major gathering of artists, it’s being celebrated with three nights of Super Concerts at the Bird Rock playing field on the outskirts of Basseterre.
On the bill are legends like The Mighty Sparrow, Jimmy Cliff, Bunny Wailer, and Haiti’s konpa veterans, Tabou Combo. Besides Sparrow, Trinidad has sent its reigning calypso monarch, Shadow “the bassman from hell”; Mungal Patasar, the sitarist whose Indo-calypso-jazz fusion has recently catapulted him to World Music fame, and New Age griot David Rudder.
The younger generation is represented by Beenie Man, one of Jamaica’s top ranking dancehall dons; Barbados’s soca scorchers Krosfyah: and the man who’s about to kick off the Super Concerts, Andy Palacio and the Punta Rebels from Belize.
At first glance there’s not much to distinguish the Punta Rebels from any other AfroCaribbean band, but what’s that stage right? A percussionist in the front line, sticks beating the festoon of turtle shells
which hang to his knees, adding a new timbre to the furious Punta Rock polyrhythms. And the lyrics? What unfamiliar language is that? Garifuna.
The Rebels are Garifuna, descendants of the Black Caribs of St Vincent (off spring of survivors of a slave ship wrecked off St Vincent, who intermarried with the island Caribs) exiled by the British to Honduras in 1797.
In an inspired piece of programming, the St Kitts Carifesta organisers have given the honour of raising the Super Concerts’ curtain to representatives of one of the region’s few surviving indigenous people. But this is no token gesture: the young Rebels can really Punta. Caribbean audiences take their music seriously and will soon let any artist know if they’re not cutting it (toilet rolls if you’re lucky, bottles. if you’re really dread).
Andy hits the stage after the Rebels’ keyboard player has the crowd wild with the Garifuna version of the waist-swivelling, pelvic-pumping dance which accompanies any Afro-Caribbean popular music. Andy has the fine features of his Carib ancestors and the dark complexion of his African forebears, while contemporary Caribbean dreadlocks frame his boyish good looks.
He also has a fine voice and both lyrics and languages (Garifuna, Spanish, English and Belizean Creole) to exercise it on. When he launches into Viva El Caribe«, the crowd recognises it as a new panCaribbean anthem embracing not only the islands, but the Central and South American territories which fringe the New World sea, whose coastal regions are home to many of the cultures and the sensibility of the islands.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia and Wilson Harris of Guyana are quintessential Caribbean voices, just as Colombian vallenato, Venezuelan tumbadora, Surinamese kaskawi and forro from Bahia in northeast Brazil are all Afro-Caribbean musics.
Andy is not here just as the foremost exponent of Punta Rock (nothing to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll, everything to do with swaying to the traditional Garifuna punta rhythm). He’s a member of the Belize contingent, cultural ambassador and information officer in the Ministry of Rural Development and Culture.
Now in his late 30s, this former teacher, whose songs have inspired a new sense of pride and identity in a whole generation of Garifuna youth, is one of the Caribbean’s new voices, articulating the aspirations of one of the region’s oldest presences.
While he’s excited at “the reunion with my fellow Caribbean artists,” he is critical about Carifesta “which doesn’t do much to expose new energy.
Being from a small country, I don’t see a deliberate move to catapult Belize into the forefront.”
He’s disappointed that all three Super Concerts are headlined by Jamaicans – not that he has any problem with their music, but because this choice endorses the perception outside the region that Caribbean music is just reggae.
It seems as though the successful St Kitts Music Festival has been subsumed by Carifesta this year, great for music lovers but a disadvantage for the regional festival, with “superstars” winging in, performing and winging out. “Something needs to be done,” reflects Andy, “about getting participants to share. The dancing is the same, the drumming is the same, the only difference is the language. I’d have liked to see more interaction from the stares.”
He remembers a Caribbean festival in Cancun back in 1993: “Willie Colon, Celia Cruz and Johnnie Ventura were there. Willie got married and we jammed at his wedding. It was great, a drummer from Martinique, a guitarist from Haiti. Then it’s not business any more; it’s art. That’s where we are able to celebrate our commonalities. It’s like a clave (the basic rhythm or key to Cuban music) – we can all do something around that.”
As Andy points out, in a region fragmented by language and history, culture is the key to unity. This is the rationale behind Carifesta, which began back in Guyana in 1972 and has since been staged at infrequent intervals (with a long lapse in the 1980s) in Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica and most recently, twice in Trinidad (1992 and 1995).
Where politics have failed pull the region together (even the ill-fated attempt to federate the English Caribbean didn’t survive five years in the Iate 50s and early 60s), cultural, migratory and trading networks are a regional fact of life and survival.
Haitian music infiltrated eastern Cuba from the time of the 1804 revolution, and continued with waves of migrant cane cutters, shaping danzon and son. Cuban music in turn has been shaping the whole region (and beyond as far as Africa) since the late 19th century. Work opportunities like the Panama Canal, the Curacao oil refinery and sugar harvests throughout the islands have broken down language barriers far more than has ever been realised or documented.
Yet with all the commonalities, the Caribbean remains unbelievably diverse, and new voices continually break through to articulate this diversity. The African presence has emerged from centuries of colonial repression and oppression, represented in forms as varied as indigenous religions like Haiti’s vaudou, Cuba’s santeria, Trinidad’s Orisha and a bewilderingly extended family of music.
The Indian presence is now coming into its own, and surprised many at the last night of the Super Concerts in the form of Pantar. Although Mungal Patasar has been experimenting with his fusion of steelpan and sitar since the late 80s, he’s relatively unknown in the wider Caribbean.
All this is about to change, as Virgin France have been just as impressed with his fusion as the open-mouthed audience at Bird Rock on Sunday night. What can be more Caribbean than an East Indian sitarist composing a song about a rasta? Dreadlocks is slated for hit status in Europe. But even more important than the music is the philosophy behind the fusion – the unity of diversity, a Caribbean New Age paradigm.
Another cutting edge talent on display at Carifesta was Trinidadian film and video maker Robert “Yao” Ramesar. Yao himself is a “Dougla”, the Trini term for half-African half-Indian, with a Jamaican mother and Trini father. Employed in his country’s Ministry of Information, Yao has been patiently recording aspects of Trinidadian mainstream and marginal culture for years, and has won awards at home and internationally.
Yet he’s important not just as a documenter but as a truly visionary film maker with a unique style characterised by shooting in natural light, the use of unusual low angles and a hand-held camera, producing an entirely new way of viewing already unfamiliar subjects. He explains his work as “Releasing the spiritual essence of Caribbeing with the sun as centrifugal force.”
Yao was on hand to show selections of his series on traditional carnival characters, and Indian and African rituals, and to deliver a presentation, invaluable for aspiring film makers.
Carifesta is many things to many people, and, however ambitious and well-organised, can probably never do justice to this wave-making region. St Kitts and Nevis did itself proud as the smallest territory to stage the event (even coping with a hurricane alert, courtesy tropical storm Debby).
Major cultural figures like George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and Jamaican publisher Ian Randle were on hand, giving credibility and support to the enterprise. For young performers like the professional modem folk group Ashe from Jamaica and old hands like the Rude Boyz String Band from beleagured Montserrat, Carifesta was a rare chance to play to a truly regional audience. Viva El Caribe. See you in Suriname in 2004.