Harvest of Fun: Barbados Crop Over

The roots of Barbados’s Crop Over festival lie deep in the colonial past. Roxan Kinas looks at what it is today and where it came from

Blessing of the cane. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerCalypso finals on the east coast.  Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerPhotograph by Roxan KinasSmokey Burke. Photograph courtesy Smokey BurkeSpectacle in red: Kadooment Day. Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerTraditional tuk band. Photograph by Eleanor Chandler

A carefree colony of revellers prances down the road, sandwiched between the fiery midday sun and scorching tar. As the spangled mass “chips” and wines to calypso blaring from mobile loudspeakers, five miles of sidewalk-packed onlookers crane to watch the glittery spectacle pass.

This is Grand Kadooment, the finale to the Barbados Crop Over Festival. On this day thousands of costumed revellers and spectators jam the route from the National Stadium to Spring Garden Highway where it all culminates in a frenzy of music, merriment, food and exhaustion.

While Crop Over’s climactic Kadooment resembles many Carnival parades, the similarity ends there. This historic national celebration is a month-long “happening” that showcases the heart of Barbadian culture. Beginning in late June, Crop Over marks the end of the sugar cane harvest, just as it did 200 years ago. Then, the end of the crop heralded the start of a lean period of scarce work and money; but today’s festival is wholly celebratory. And from feast to frolic the excitement draws even the most reluctant sideliners into a rush of activities embracing everything from fine arts and crafts and parades to all manner of music.

It all begins with the ceremonial delivery of the last canes by donkey and cart, an event that links the festival’s historical roots with the modern celebration. The ceremonial delivery was originally held on the plantations, and research suggests it is perhaps the oldest festival in the post-Columbus era. End-of-crop celebrations were a natural climax to the long harvest, a short respite from the rigours of work in the cane fields, from over-laden donkey carts trundling along winding dirt roads and crews of workers toiling in the fields. The plantation was a village unto itself, and plantation owners hosted lavish festivities for the field hands when the crop was in.

As the final procession of carts made its way into the mill yard, a labourer would beat a makeshift gong, announcing “Crop Over”. The animals and carts were decorated with flowers, and often the canes themselves were tied with bright bandanas that fluttered in the wind. The workers who reaped and delivered the canes joined the procession.

One cart carried the cane trash effigy of “Mr Harding”, a figure who symbolised the hard times and the ruthless gang-drivers. As the festivities drew to a close, the effigy was burned. (The “Mr Harding” element was dropped from the present-day festival several years ago.) The festivities were punctuated by lavish spreads of food and drink, usually rum, along with games and contests, including the now dying art of “stick-licking” (a game of stick fighting). Dancing and singing dominated, with music an integral element of the event.

In the 1900s, Crop Over evolved into a small-scale version of what is seen today. Beginning with a procession of decorated carts presenting the last canes to the plantation yard, labourers paraded around the yard and introduced “Mr Harding” to the manager. Then came celebration, dance, food and the cremation of “Mr Harding”.

Crop Over just about vanished during World War II, but in the early 1970s the then Board of Tourism, now the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA), sought to introduce a visitor-oriented version of the festival as an attraction. Though it struggled at first, primarily because it lacked local support and authenticity, the seed germinated. For when the Ministry of Culture, and, later, the National Cultural Foundation (NCF), took charge of the festival and resurrected its historical and cultural elements, Crop Over caught on like a cane fire. Now into its 25th year, Crop Over is the biggest event on the calendar, and with good reason: visitor arrivals have eclipsed traditional peak winter season arrivals since 1994.

Though the last canes still arrive by donkey cart, they no longer go to a plantation yard. In 1995 the NCF opened this event to large crowds for Crop Over’s 21st anniversary. Amalgamating a number of smaller events, they devised one big Gala Opening Ceremony, which was such a success it became part of the calendar.

This year the Gala Opening takes place on Saturday July 4 at the historic Portvale Sugar Factory. Then on Sunday July 12 the Promenade and Decorated Cart Parade wends its way around Bridgetown, moving between Queen’s Park and Independence Square in the city and back. Carts, defined as anything on wheels that can be adorned and travel, come in every form, from fanciful bicycles to elaborate floats. The Gala’s slate of entertainment includes another historic tradition, the crowning of the King and Queen of the Crop — the man and woman who reaped the most canes during the season.

From then on, hardly a day passes without something happening. Cultural activities include the Bajan Culture Village (July 18 and 19), Youth Fest (July 11) and Bridgetown Market (August 1 and 2), each offering its own special flavour of Bajan culture.

Throughout Crop Over, music rules. From folk to the fast-paced beat of soca, it’s everywhere. The NCF, in its mandate to embrace all local cultural forms, introduced a folk concert in 1990. The July 28 and 29 shows commemorate the anniversary of the 1937 riots, an event seen as the beginning of the democratisation of Barbados’s political system.

Meanwhile, bewitching calypso and soca rhythms storm the air waves, while roving “tuk” bands celebrate Barbadian culture in authentic form. In tuk, spirited minstrels play European and African-fused rhythms on kettle drum, bass drum and penny whistle. The sequence begins with a slow waltz, then slides into a march rhythm and concludes with an almost frenetic African beat. Often dressed in hilarious attire, these roving bands flourish at Crop Over time, captivating all ages with their music and antics. While tuk bands stroll through the many cultural events, there is also a Tuk Band competition (August 2) and a Steel Band Festival (August 1), both of which are part of the massive Bridgetown Market on Spring Garden Highway.

Meanwhile, calypso tents (shows) heat up for the Pic-O-De-Crop Semis and Finals competitions. While the rhythm of calypso seduces, lyrics attract with their light-hearted wit or biting truths. Calypsonians fire sharp barbs at society’s ills in commentary that is sometimes humorous, sometimes sober.

And with Barbados’s recent blitz on the regional music scene, local calypsonians no longer stand in the shadow of their Trinidadian colleagues. Barbadian performers have all but stormed Trinidad’s Carnival in recent years, and regional eyes are fixed on the island’s own calypso contests. The national calypso festival starts with the Junior Calypso Monarch Competition on July 19, the youngsters’ version of the Pic-O-De-Crop Finals.

But before the “big guns” come on stage for the crowning fight, calypso yields to Junior Kadooment on July 25, a kids’ event the adults can’t stay away from. Youngsters parade through the National Stadium in full colour, portraying scenes, people, places and events. They jump, prance, and wave their way past the judges for an exciting afternoon of competition and frolic. Then on July 26 thousands pack their picnics to see a double-event: the Pic-O-De-Crop Semi Finals and the newer and exciting Party Monarch Finals, staged for the first time in 1995 on the rugged east coast. With the picturesque hills forming a natural amphitheatre, it is an ideal outdoor musical venue.

On July 31 the stadium becomes calypso central for the Pic-O-De-Crop Finals. As the night’s show finishes and a winner emerges, revellers move straight into the new Fore-day Morning Jump-Up, another 1995 addition that proved successful.

When on August 1 Spring Garden Highway loses its cars and turns into the island’s biggest centre of culture and food. The two-day Bridgetown Market whets the appetite for the coming Kadooment crescendo. Tantalising aromas waft past the almost endless line of craft, art, fashion and souvenir stalls on the mile-long four-lane highway. Come night, it’s Cohobblopot, an exciting show of all the best music Crop Over has produced, and the venue for the colourful King & Queen of the Bands (costume) contest.

Crop Over culminates in a massive explosion of colour and music the following morning with Grand Kadooment. A day-long stream of costumed bands parades before the judges, competing for prizes in several categories. Then in true Carnival style revellers make the five-mile journey to Spring Garden, dancing and partying to top calypsos competing for Tune of the Crop — the song played most often on the route. It’s revelry and merriment all the way, with tightly packed crowds rimming the route to see the bands in their glory. By mid-afternoon, everyone converges on Spring Garden, and the turnout easily passes 100,000 as the merriment continues into the night.

Visitors are embraced at Crop Over, and whether you’re a jumper or a by-stander, there’s something in this festival to engage your interest. Contact the NCF (809-424-0909) for details on joining a junior or adult Kadooment band.

Drifting into Soca

It may seem odd that an internationally-acclaimed R&B singer manages a calypso tent. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Barbadian Smokey Burke grew up on traditional calypso, and, despite a 20-year hiatus from his homeland, that music never left his blood. Now this one-time member of The Drifters manages Barbados’s longest-running calypso tent.

Carib House of Soca has more than proven itself over the past 18 years and is renowned for the consistently high quality of its talent. Actually, Carib House of Soca has produced more monarchs than any other tent in Barbados.

Since his return home, Smokey has come full circle musically. Reared on Trinidad kaiso, Smokey went on to become a solo R&B artist, then a Drifter. On returning home he began singing at the House of Soca. Last season Smokey became manager of the tent, peppering up the pot even more with knowledge gained from his international music experience.

Launched in 1981 in the old Fontabelle Yoruba Yard as “Super Tent”, under the ownership and management of Antonio “Boo” Rudder, Carib House of Soca was renamed “Jah Jah House of Soca” before coming to rest under its current banner. Known as a traditional tent with strong social commentary, the House boasts a consistent history of veteran kaiso performers and it is also a front-runner for new ideas and talent. This tent has hatched such names as Bumba, Black Pawn, Observer, Rita (lone female Monarch) and Termite, along with veteran talents still with the tent, like Serenader, Invader and Adonijah, all of whom are title holders.

This tent has also embraced top MCs over the years, including Mighty Dragon, Malik and popular entertainer Trevor Eastmond, their MC for the past nine years. And Carib Soca Demons, led by Smokey Roett, is one of the island’s most accomplished calypso bands. This year Smokey Burke says the tent launched another trend with the appearance of Carib House of Soca at the Barbados Museum courtyard. Catering to “a more upscale and visitor-oriented crowd”, the Sunday evening tent hosts a dinner and full show package. Says Smokey, “If the response is overwhelming, we will continue the shows.” In addition, the House is travelling en masse to England just after Crop Over this year, where it will perform at the famed Notting Hill Carnival in London.

Over the years most tents have inched their way to bigger, more central venues. But Smokey now believes it’s time to shift back to their roots. “I think for us, and really all the tents, it is time to return to the communities. This year we went back to the Steel Shed. It was an error last year to move to Dover Convention Centre. We decided we had outgrown the Steel Shed, but instead we alienated our grassroots people.” In the end, Smokey contends, “Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising for the tents.”

Smokey feels it is hard to compare Barbados’s festival to Trinidad’s because “every Trini alive today was born into Carnival, while Bajans did not begin to take Crop Over seriously until around 1980”. He feels, however, that a comparison of the tent-to-population ratio in both islands should be made, for it reveals a weak point in Barbados.

“Barbados has on average 10 to 12 tents for a population of 260,000 people, while Trinidad has about five tents for over a million people. To me, having so many tents, some of which don’t even make it through the season, just clutters the festival and confuses the general public, most of whom are still to be convinced the tents are worth attending.

Yet several tents, he says, have consistently risen above the “boring show” stigma, offering outstanding talent year after year. “All tents have an off-year, however, and ours was in 1996. And that is when I came in. After living abroad and travelling around the world with The Drifters, you see how to do things professionally, and I felt I could give something to it. Last year was a very good one. We had an excellent production and we were commended by other tent managers for our innovations.”

The House always had the most singers going into the semis and the finals by a huge margin, he says. “We also had four semi-finalists in the Party Monarch competition and two, Natalie Burke and Peter Ram, went on to the finals.” While House of Soca’s strong point has always been its social commentary, Smokey says, “last year we brought party calypsos more to the fore because the public taste is changing and they want more visual excitement. That move saw the inclusion of people like Natalie Burke, Troy Special and Peter Ram, and we are continuing that this year.”

Natalie Burke’s Ah Gotta Dance was one of last year’s more popular party songs, taking second in the Party Monarch Finals, and Smokey predicts all three of the House’s young comers constitute “part of the future of House of Soca and the calypso forum.”

More than Carnival

Crop Over doesn’t only mean big parties, street parades and calypso compet-itions. Anderson King looks at some of the other events that make up the six-week festival of Barbadian culture

For many years, my experience of Crop Over was restricted to the fetes of the season and the big street party on Grand Kadooment Day. Until last year, I neglected the other aspects of what I now know to be the ultimate expression of my culture. There is nothing missing from this, the national festival of Barbados. Join me as I relive the memories of some of the lesser-known joys of Crop Over.

Fine Art and Photography

The first few weeks of the season were crammed with exhibitions, cultural shows and band fetes at different venues along the west and south coasts of the island. One exhibition was the Crop Over Fine Art/Photography Competition. I entered what I thought was a less-than-appropriate setting, the cramped Grand Salle of the Central Bank Complex. But the art and the photography were vibrant enough to dispel all discomfort. Strolling through those rooms, and seeing all the different emotions expressed there, was enough to send my mind reeling.

The theme was These Fields and Hills, drawn from our National Anthem. In the section which housed the fine art exhibits there was a piece which invaded the minds of all who saw it. The canvas screamed in silence to all people — it spoke quietly and painfully of the horrors endured by the slaves who worked so hard for this gem of an island we live on. The photography, too, spoke volumes to me. What I saw was a changing of the guard. Radical expressions and bold experiments dominated this segment, and although the photographers have some way to go yet, I was assured that photography in Barbados is a rich creative source waiting to be discovered.

Gala Opening

After years of searching, the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) has found a successful recipe for making the festival “sweet”. The NCF’s talent in choosing appropriate locations has accounted for a revived interest in all events by Barbadians. What better venue to host the Gala Opening and Ceremonial Delivery of the Last Canes than our newest place of interest — the Rum Refinery and Heritage Park at the south-eastern extreme of the island. As I walked through cane-fields towards the plantation, I reflected on the significance of hosting the event at this venue. This is where Crop Over began, in a plantation yard. It was a truly captivating experience, strolling through the modernised complex which has the distinction of being the foremost rum distillery in the world. Hundreds of people revelled in the fair-like atmosphere — children running everywhere, bobbing for apples, queueing for sno-cones and fish-cakes and experimenting with the occasional “wuk-up” that Bajans are ready to display at the slightest hint of a drum-beat.

Somewhere in the distance a tuk-band was piping up. I headed in that direction but got sidetracked so many times by different things which reminded me of my carefree youth that I never reached that sweet tuk.

Youth Fest

As the name proclaims, this is a celebration of Barbados youth. Last year, though, it seemed that uppermost in everyone’s minds was the excitement we expected from the entertainers on stage. At Farley Hill, shaded by the towering trees and framed by the majestic backdrop of the ruins of a once-majestic plantation house, internationally acclaimed Barbadian artists like Edwin Yearwood and Allison Hinds whipped and wooed the crowd with their performances. Those gathered at the popular picnic ground stomped, jumped and danced — and still we managed to congratulate the island’s youth who were being awarded for their contributions to literature, athletics and academia.

Crop Over Promenade Craft Fair

Barbadians and visitors were treated to contemporary and traditional forms of entertainment at the historic Queen’s Park in the heart of Bridgetown. I had the idea that there was to be a focus on fashion and craft. At one point all attention was directed to a stage where the “Best Dressed” competition was being held. I had witnessed this before and must confess that it provides the comedy, and sets the stage, for the unleashed laughter that Barbadians are always ready to offer. To see the old folks, most of them gracefully gliding through the sixth decade of their lives, parade and sashay confidently across the stage, was a pleasure. I never even looked at what they were wearing; I was content enough to just to share in their enjoyment. Then it was the craftspeople’s turn. I got many treasures at very good prices and grinned all the way home that evening.

The Decorated Cart Parade

This traditional part of Crop Over has suffered from decreased participation and interest over the past few years, but the event is one that carts us back to the origins of the festival. Anything on wheels may be part of this parade, and you will see bicycles, the rare donkey cart, small replicas of vehicles and, of course, large floats drawn by trucks.

Last year, I willingly lost myself in the throng of people jostling for position. First to trot around the corner was an immaculately decorated cart bearing two people, dressed in what I proudly told two children beside me was our national dress. I just didn’t know who the two people represented. I later found out these regally-dressed people were the King and Queen of the Crop (champion cane-cutter and cane-loader).

Then came a steady train of brilliantly decorated “carts”, followed by colourful dancing stiltmen, the Barbados Landship Society, and members of a Baptist church in brilliantly coloured flowing gowns. I followed the stiltmen for a while. I thought I could gain the talent if I watched them long enough. But the things they did on those towering stilts reminded me of why I so feared them as a youngster: those tall shaggy men, looking too much as if they would fall on me if they came too close.

Bajan Culture Village

I call the Bajan Culture Village a living museum. It is situated at King George V Memorial Park and visiting it gave me the tingly feeling of goose bumps.

I was so used to going to these events that at first I did not notice the crowd. There were laughter, and smiling faces, and the easy brotherhood of people who all seemed to know one another — even when they were total strangers. This is what draws tourists to our shores, but, more importantly, this is what keeps us together as one people.

Throughout the entire park, actors dressed in traditional garb performed age-old rituals of village life, like washing with a “juking” board and cooking in a coal-pot. The cutest little “chattel houses” proudly advertised the crafts they held within. I scurried from the basket-maker’s house to the cobbler’s, from the wood carver’s to the man selling pottery.

Then I sampled some typical Barbadian food, like fish and “coo-coo” (made with cornmeal and ochroes). Once again, I was transported to my youth and those constant flights back in time started to make me dizzy. The activities went on for two days, and I was there right to the finish. The first night ended with a calypso show and the second night found me singing “Swing low, sweet chariot” with the gospel performers who wrapped up the weekend.

These are some of the things that make Crop Over “sweet fuh days”. Don’t miss them.