All this jazz

Simon Lee on the Caribbean’s headline events in May and June

  • George Benson. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Chucho Valdés. Photograph by David Garten
  • The Puerto Rico Symphony Ochestra. Photograph courtesy Festival Casals de Puerto Rico
  • The legendary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki is the music director of the Casals Festival. Photograph courtesy Festival Casals de Puerto Rico/Steve Niedorf

Besides the ubiquitous sun, and seas guaranteed to make jacuzzis run dry with envy, the Caribbean is a musical paradise awaiting your discovery. You’re winging in at one of the busiest times when it comes to jazz, although, if you’re classically inclined, don’t miss June’s Pablo Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, where you’ll catch everything from symphonies to opera performed by orchestras and virtuosi from the five continents.

But talking of jazz festivals, let’s get it straight: in the islands, whatever the fat lady may be doing, it’s not over until George Benson encores with On Broadway. I’ve watched him bring down the curtain to heaving bosoms in St Lucia, Jamaica and Barbados. And whatever the delights of Havana’s superb Plaza Jazz Festival, I confess that even when I attended I was slightly miffed not to find George on the bill.

Actually, I was quite fortunate to hear anybody on that occasion, as on the opening night of the festival I found myself firmly locked out of the Teatro Nacional, with neither press pass nor ticket. Relax, this is the Caribbean where miracles are daily occurrences. It all worked out, and I’ve still got my participant’s pass to prove it. And as the late great Trini novelist Sam Selvon would have said: this is the ballad (story).

Having decided almost a decade ago that it was my duty to my fellow men and women to combine my passion for improvisation (that’s jazz) with a burning desire to travel the Caribbean, it seemed only natural to start covering the region’s jazz festivals. At least this was a more original approach than carnival island-hopping.

It also gave me the perfect excuse to explore the islands, listening to sounds as diverse as vaudou roots, ska, biguine, belé, along with blues, hip hop, funk, as well as jazz, and meeting a vast array of hugely talented musicians, some of whom are now my good partners (which means friends and not significant others).

One of the many attractions of our small island societies is that celebrities, from Nobel Laureates to visiting superstars, are as accessible as the man in the rum shop. After one supersonic session above the waves in Schoelcher, Martinique (Arturo Sandoval blowing trumpet good enough to front the heavenly host, fellow Cubanos Chucho Valdés and Ernan Lopez-Nussa devastating the keyboard), I surfaced at breakfast the following morning to find colossal Chucho Valdés a table away.

Forgetting my Spanish is limited to ordering beer, I introduced myself with no ulterior motive beyond getting myself an invitation to Havana’s jazz festival, of which Chucho is director. With true Latino expansiveness, he immediately issued me a personal invite. A few months later in Miami he greeted me from his baseballer’s height over the heads of the milling music industry execs: “Ah Simón, ju come Habana jazz, no?”

After such largesse, what were a few hefty padlocks when I finally made it to Havana? Blocked at the front, I made my way to the back of the theatre, plunged through an open door and found myself onstage in the spotlight with none other than Chucho, who was wrapping up a final rehearsal with his Latin jazz supergroup Irakere. Entirely unfazed by my appearance, he welcomed me like a member of the band and quickly scribbled a note that I was able to cash in for a treasured participant’s pass. As Alejo Carpentier, father of magical realism and Cuban musicologist extraordinaire might have put it: all things are possible in the kingdom of this world, especially in the Caribbean.

But before we get totally blown away with jazz (St Lucia, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Grenada and Curaçao all in May), let me fill you in on some of the other crucial dates and events.

In May, check out the only international kite flying competition in Guadeloupe. Celebrate Slavery Abolition Day throughout the French Antilles on 22 May and Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad (30 May). In June you can get spiritually charged at the Gospelfest in Barbados and on June 29 join in the beach parties held in many islands to honour St Peter, patron saint of the quintessential Caribbean man, the fisherman.


In the water

Yachties may want to unfurl their sails at the Grenada Yacht Club races (5, 26 May, 16 June); at the Angostura Tobago Sail Week (12-17 May); Martinique’s June regattas or Antigua’s Jolly Harbour Race (27 June).

Sport fishers can take their tackle to May tournaments in Antigua, The Caymans or St Maarten, and June tournaments in Dominica, the USVI and Trinidad. Wind surfers should prepare for aquatic acrobatics in Aruba and Cabarete in the Dominican Republic in June.


On land

Apart from Negril’s May carnival, you’ll be able to get all the exercise you need during May at Bonaire’s Mountain Bike Challenge and Road Tour and Jamaica’s High Mountain 10k bike race in June. If you prefer vicarious exercise, head for the international track and field competition in Barbados on 18 May. And of course there’s the Caribbean Cricket Festival at the Jamaica Grande Hotel in Ocho Rios (25-29 July) for cricketing enthusiasts.

I’m hoping to join the descarga total (all out jam session) at the St Lucia Jazz Festival. Look for me around midnight.


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