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'd 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.