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Caribbean Beat Magazine

The first Carifesta

The first Carifesta, held in Guyana 31 years ago, celebrated the enthusiasm and energy of the newly independent Caribbean territories. As Suriname prepares to host Carifesta VII in August, Caribbean Beat looks back to the festival's optimistic origins

  • Bill Pilgrim, brother of composer Philip Pilgrim, conducts a performance of The Legend of Kaieteur at the National Cultural Centre in Georgetown, Guyana, during the 1972 Caribbean Festival of Culture and Arts, Soloist Barbara Burrows stands at centre-stage. Photograph courtesy Bill Pilgrim

The first Caribbean Festival of Culture and Arts, Carifesta I, was celebrated in Guyana in 1972. For the English-speaking Caribbean, this was the age of Independence, and that first flush of patriotic optimism still lingered. Visitors to Guyana in 1972 were struck immediately by a spirit of enthusiastic discovery, by the fact that so much was achieved with limited resources. Artists and performers from most Caribbean territories were joined by colleagues from several nearby Latin American countries. Music, dance, theatre, art, and poetry overflowed through the city of Georgetown, and audiences were not confined to any cultural or intellectual elite.

Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite electrified listeners at a reading from his early books; Javanese dancers from Suriname enacted intricate, stylised sequences; a Cuban orchestra amazed audiences with a performance full of conflict and vitality. One of the highlights of this first Carifesta programme was a revival of the oratorio The Legend of Kaieteur, composed by the late Philip Pilgrim, based on the well-known poem by A.J. Seymour. A 150-voice choir was joined by two pianists and a steel band. Georgetown’s cultural centre, where Kaieteur was performed, was still incomplete, and the acoustics far from ideal, but the scale and ambition of the event aptly summarised the hopefulness of the entire Carifesta enterprise; as Seymour’s poem proclaimed, “From what the mind wills, body will not turn”.

The original plan envisioned a biennial Carifesta. After Guyana, Jamaica hosted Carifesta II in 1976; it was Cuba’s turn in 1979, then Barbados in 1981, but then there was a gap of more than a decade before Carifesta V in Trinidad and Tobago, in 1992. T&T were hosts once again in 1995, and in 2000 St. Kitts and Nevis became the smallest territory ever to take on the challenges of the event. Whether because of a change in regional spirit, or a flagging of early optimism, it’s generally agreed that the later Carifestas have lacked some crucial element that animated the festivals of the 1970s. But in late August 2003, the people of Suriname will attempt to revive that early spirit, as Carifesta VIII returns to South America, where it started 31 years ago.

Suriname, with its population descended from India, Africa, Europe, Indonesia, China, and the Middle East, and with culturally distinct groups of indigenous Amerindians and Maroons, may be the region’s most ethnically diverse nation, and hopes to use Carifesta VIII to strengthen its links with the rest of the Caribbean. An ambitious week-long programme, from 24 to 30 August, includes exhibitions, theatre, a book fair, the performance of a Hindu Ramayan “opera”, and a show of indigenous flora. The organising committee imagines the event as a “family reunion” for the Caribbean’s artists, an opportunity for “inspiring, stimulating, questioning, loving, irritating, educating, elevating each other”. May our most talented answer the call.