Word of mouth (May/June 2016)

St Lucia Jazz — celebrating twenty-five years — brings artists and audiences close, and Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival inspires real ardour

Photo courtesy St Lucia Tourist BoardPhoto courtesy Jakes Hotel

Jazz for the people

Laura Dowrich on how St Lucia Jazz, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, brings artists and audiences close together

The first time I attended the St Lucia Jazz Festival, back in 2002, British jazz musician Courtney Pine jumped off the stage, and just as my journalistic instincts kicked into high gear to see the lucky patron he was aiming for, he swooped me up in his arms to dance. The next day, India.Arie’s eyes made four with mine and she smiled as I sang along with her.

Back then, I put my unforgettable interactions on Pigeon Island down to media privilege. Fast-forward thirteen years to the 2015 edition, and I realise that interactivity is one of the allures of St Lucia’s flagship festival.

No chainlink fences or ugly barricades in sight: the audience is separated from the stage merely by Framelock barriers, tall enough to keep the crowd at bay but short enough to encourage artiste interaction. And interact they did. R&B crooner Robin Thicke jumped into a swarm of screaming girls, while hip-hop star turned EDM artiste Flo Rida perched atop the fence, posing for selfies with his teenage fans. Barbadian jazz saxophonist Arturo Tappin tantalised the ladies as he weaved his way through those sitting on the lawn to take in the action.

With the final weekend of what is now the St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival staged on scenic and historic Pigeon Island, the festival layout resembles exactly what you think of when you imagine a music festival on a Caribbean island. The main stage is now nestled on the northern side, at the bottom of the grassy hill. Patrons walk with blankets and folding chairs and sit wherever they choose to enjoy the musical fare.

2016 marks twenty-five years since the St Lucia Tourist Board launched this event, and the experience shows. St Lucia Jazz is a well-oiled production. Whether there is one patron in the audience or one hundred, the anthem strikes up and the show begins at the time advertised. Performances are kept to schedule, and the gaps during the changes in artistes on the centre stage are filled with performances from a local band on a side stage, so there is never a lull. And if nothing else, the festival is fertile ground for St Lucian artistes to show their skills to the world, as some of the bigger Lucian acts open for the international headliners each of the three nights.

When it comes to international artistes, St Lucia has seen practically all the big names in jazz, R&B, and world music — Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, James Ingram, Angelique Kidjo, Natalie Cole, Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill, the Commodores, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, the O’Jays, Harry Belafonte, Mary J Blige, and Al Green are just a few. And in 2016, the festival once more offers a little something for everyone — but with a decided return to its jazz roots. 2016’s lineup will feature the likes of BWB, jazz guitarist Chris Standring, child prodigy pianist Joey Alexander, jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, and St Luician jazz guitarist Ronald “Boo” Hinkson, among others.

And considering the diverse audience of tourists from all over the world, including nearby Caribbean islands, the festival organisers cater to all tastes and age groups. For the young, there’s Jamaican sensation Omi of “Cheerleader” fame and dancehall star Shaggy. The not-so-young will revel in oldies from George Benson, Air Supply, and Kool and the Gang, while those with more eclectic tastes can take in Dominican creole band Kassav’ and Latin sensation Marc Anthony.

Though the highlights of the festival are the three main stage nights, St Lucia Jazz is truly a national affair, almost akin to a Carnival. Shows are staged for nearly two weeks before the big weekend around the island, and in the week leading up to the finale Derek Walcott Square in the heart of Castries comes alive with fringe performances from regional and local acts. Even schoolchildren are given time off from class to enjoy the music.

 

The word is love

Tanya Batson-Savage writes an aborted love letter to the Calabash International Literary Festival

At times like this, I long to be a poet. Linton Kwesi Johnson whispers in my ear, and I too, without his irony, wish I were a top-notch poet, or even a mediocre one. I wish for the gift of poetry because I want to write a love letter to Calabash, and love letters are best written by poets. Prose takes too long and is often without the music that swells emotion and is the heartbeat of poetry. But alas, unlike LKJ, whom I first saw perform live at Calabash, I’m no poet, just a peddler of prose fumbling for the right words.

When you fall in love, the first time is everything. It colours all experiences that come after, and becomes the thing you use to measure other relationships. By now, I am a diehard Calabasher, a full-time, hardcore lover of this brainchild of poet Kwame Dawes and novelist Colin Channer, and ably produced by Justine Henzell. But I always remember my first time.

I first supped on Calabash’s offerings in 2002, the second year of the festival, then held annually. I had intended to drink tentatively, attending for one night only, but after the fiery words of Dingo, Saul Williams, and Willie Perdomo, I had fallen head over clichéd heels (or sandals, rather) in love.

It’s easy to fall for Calabash. Year on year, the festival offers up some of the world’s most celebrated and exciting writers. In our years together, which now feel like a lifetime, Calabash has brought me words in prose and verse from voices as diverse as Geoff Dyer and Sonia Sanchez, bell hooks and Zadie Smith, Mervyn Morris and Chimamanda Adiche, Orlando Patterson and Salman Rushdie.

But Calabash offers more than wonderful encounters of the literary kind, more than the exciting musical sessions which close each day’s programme — taking you into the early hours of the morning on Friday and Saturday nights and allowing you to dance your way home on Sunday evening. There is something more than the workshops, publishing seminars, film screenings, and opportunities for first publications that have arisen over the years.

There is something . . . a little magical about Calabash. Maybe it’s the combination of salt air, the nearby sea, and black sand beach. One way or another, I and a few thousand other lovers of the word find this festival a heady and unique experience, where you immerse yourself in the literary from 10 am to midnight, or simply wander off down the beach if it calls to you.

Now a biennial event, Calabash remains at the laidback Jake’s Resort, in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, on Jamaica’s south coast. Jake’s is the quintessential “irie” resort, a blend of chic and rustic. The drive there is itself a thing of beauty, as you move past the rolling green hills, occasionally glimpsing the rich red dirt that makes the parish the heart of the bauxite industry. When you pass the quiet farming community of Southfield, it’s best to drive slowly. Not because the road is daunting — rather, you want to give yourself the chance to catch that first glimpse of the sea glistening in the distance below you, or the two large salt ponds that, if you’re lucky, will be covered with lilies.

My journeys to Calabash have become a family affair. We moved from two, to three, to four, and now ten of us share a house, having made a reservation since the 2014 staging. We make these reservations early because we have no reservations about returning — we know the lineup for this year’s festival, running from 3 to 5 June, is going to be great. And this year, as the list of writers includes Teju Cole, Eleanor Catton, Marlon James, Nikki Giovanni, Chris Abani, Kei Miller, Pam Mordecai, and Chigozie Obioma, the Calabash crew have done it again.

So I wish I was a top-notch poet. Then I could write to this festival that has given me so much. Instead what I have is this aborted love letter.