Goat water in Cudjoe head

Never mind the volcanic eruptions, these Montserrat folks have a festival to celebrate. James Fuller joined the party

Masqueraders perform at the 2009 Cudjoe Head Day Festival. Photograph by Keith Dyett

Montserrat is best known for the Soufrière Hills Volcano, which erupted in 1997 and buried its capital, Plymouth. But that natural disaster overshadowed many reasons why this tiny Leeward Island should be better known. One is a village festival that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

Cudjoe Head Festival began as a “village day” in 1989, and by 1995, the start of the volcanic crisis, the festival had taken hold. So the villagers continued to party, determined not to let the fun be ruined by a minor inconvenience – over half the island had been declared unsafe.

“When the crisis started, it was the only thing that remained,” says Charles Kernon, Minister of Communications and Works and chairman of the Cudjoe Head Community Club. “Even the Christmas festival was on hold for a year or two, but we continued throughout, much to the chagrin of some. They thought it was sacrilege to continue the day. But you have to do something, and it was a great way to relieve the stress.”
Cudjoe Head itself was named after an 18th-century slave from the local Nixon’s Estate who, pretty understandably, wasn’t very happy with his lot, and kept running away. Cudjoe was finally caught and lynched and his decapitated head hung from a silk cotton tree, on what became Cudjoe Head Corner, as a warning to others. The tree still stands today and is now a village emblem. Traditionally many Montserratian villages had annual festival days, but Cudjoe Head’s grew to become a two-day event and one of national importance.

So it is that I find myself in Cudjoe Head, on the last Friday in July (the festival is held on the weekend before the first Monday in August), sitting in the Treasure Spot Bar looking out on what has the feel of an old-fashioned West Indian block party. Towering speakers are positioned at either end of a short main drag, and red, white and blue bunting criss-crosses the street as the scent of cooking chicken (fried, barbecued and jerk) drifts on the evening air.

Jerette Gerald, 31, a Port Authority operations supervisor, has been helping out at the Treasure Spot during the festival for over ten years.

“It’s more a local thing, but if tourists are on island, they come and have a good time. It’s all about having fun, people coming together and enjoying themselves. Traditionally people don’t really start coming out till later, around 11pm, but then they go all the way through; music don’t stop, drinking don’t stop, dancing don’t stop. There are people in here who won’t go home till 11am tomorrow.”

Kernon says in addition to the road race, a steelband and exhibition of handmade items (including crochet, calabash and coconut craft products, pepper sauce and guava jelly) are mainstays of the festival. He explains that the event was born out of local tradition.

“The village used to be alive every Saturday night with steelpan and vendors selling peanuts, ice cream, ginger sticks and sugarcake. We wanted to keep that tradition alive. We started simple and have grown, so the foundation is strong,” says the 53-year-old Kernon, who was born and raised in Cudjoe Head.

Funds raised by the event go towards community development, with local trails being maintained, homes painted and various village beautification projects undertaken.

Cudjoe Head Festival encourages the reunion of former residents and one of those returning is Thomas “Tommy” Allen, 56, now living in Boston, USA.

“My uncle Richard used to have a shop right here where the Treasure Spot is,” he says before explaining the significance of Cudjoe Head Festival.

“Many people left after the volcano – and before actually, just for better opportunities – but it’s great to have something like this to come back to. A lot of people try to get back for Christmas, but if they can’t, then this is a great time to meet up with old friends and family.”

The national dish of goat water is predominant amongst the festival fare, and Reuben Furlonge, who has represented Montserrat at three Carifestas (the regional festival of arts and culture), is an acknowledged local master. He reveals the ingredients as onions, chives, black pepper, garlic, thyme, thickening flour, gravy browning, and of course goat meat. It’s truly delicious and I fuel myself up on it in preparation for the morning’s five-mile road race. The road race, or “fun run” (a term I’ve never understood), has been part of the festival schedule for over ten years.
Driving up to Cudjoe Head for the 6am start, we meet some hardy revellers still reluctant to go home. Mingling at the start, fellow participants reassure me that although the course is a bit hilly, it’s not too challenging. Being someone who finds flats challenging I’m not comforted. Unsurprisingly only ten masochists decide to participate, with a slightly larger turnout for the walking race following behind us.

“See ya later,” says one brother of the road, rather uncharitably, as the starter’s whistle blows. But he’s right, the majority of the pack explodes like mountain goats up the first incline and I’m soon getting that lonesome feeling.  Up ahead is a guy jogging in jeans and a white singlet, his participation presumably part of a drunken wager. He’s Lowden, from Jamaica, I learn as I pass him. For five brief but glorious minutes I taste the heady heights of ninth place, but Lowden’s jingling belt buckle reveals he hasn’t relinquished the fight, and I’m soon last again.

My seasons of fete-match cricket haven’t prepared me for this. Montserrat is seriously mountainous. The island’s lush, rugged beauty is revealing itself in the tempered shades of morning, but my blurred vision is concentrated on the tarmac in front of my toes. Montserrat is one of the friendliest places imaginable, but this is both a blessing and a curse: everyone says good morning! With my shoulders and chest tightening, as if in the first throes of a coronary, I struggle to utter more than a breathless “Muh!” in reply. People sitting comfortably in their in porch chairs shout directions. “Keep going, run fast! Come on, nah, pick up yuh foot, you a running machine,” always followed by spirited chuckling. “Run hard, yuh breakfast will meet yuh,” bawls another.

The yo-yoing slopes finally give way to a tortuous mile-long climb back to the village. A policeman draws alongside in his jeep. “You give up, you want a ride?” I shake my head. “The walkers right there,” he gestures, with an incredulous glance over his shoulder. Inexplicably, I opt for another 20 minutes of pain, during which I indeed have the ignominy of being engulfed by the leading strollers. After an hour of lungbursting pain I finally zigzag over the finishing line and into the Treasure Spot for a 7am Carib beer.
Recovery time is short at Cudjoe Head and by the afternoon a full schedule of activities is under way, with everyone taking part, from babes in arms to tanties in floral dresses sitting on white plastic chairs at the sidelines. Kids do their best to burst the bouncy castle, and peanut sellers distribute brown nut bricks as the carnival music re-energises partygoers. Estimates put this year’s attendance figure at around 1,000.

Just after 7pm, a dozen traditional masqueraders in vibrantly-coloured costumes parade down the hill, accompanied by a band which sounds like a Trinidadian rhythm section. The leader has a bull whip and cracks it in mock anger, spurring the masqueraders into dance. Tassels, arms and legs fly to the rhythm of the drum and fife.

A range of competitions follows: ugliest man; ugliest policeman; stupidest man; tallest person; and most handsome lady. There is even some crab racing and a Michael Jackson contest. My own favourite, though, and, judging by the crowd reaction, theirs as well, is the Heavy T Bumper contest. Outside Veronica’s Bar, a group of men play dominoes oblivious to the pounding music. The table’s worn mid-section, intense expressions and hands cupped around pieces like schoolboys shielding test papers, point to an ongoing battle that no festival will interrupt.

Inside Veronica’s, I ask a Rastafarian leaning against the bar how he’s going. Judging by the reply, pretty well.

“Right now, brudda,” he says, “I wondering who I am.”
Some festivals feel forced and overly commercial, but as we creep deep into the early hours of Sunday morning (journalistic integrity obligating me to stay on), the essence of Cudjoe Head is easy to appreciate. Whether you’re a villager, visitor, returning resident, or whatever, the atmosphere of relaxed revelry in which you meet anyone with a smile, fall into easy conversation, aimlessly walk anywhere and do anything, is beguiling. You couldn’t get more unpretentious than Cudjoe Head. Long may it continue, and I’ll be back – but maybe not for the road race.

For more information: www.visitmontserrat.com