Riffing in Barbados

The Barbados Jazz Festival brings cool rhythms and hot performers to laid-back Bimshire

Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo at the 2005 Barbados Jazz Festival. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaTaking in the music at Farley Hill. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

Barbados. The name conjures up images of white sand, azure skies, and turquoise water. True, Barbados is all that, but come January each year the island adopts a considerably more energetic tone. The Barbados Jazz Festival, a week-long fiesta featuring jazz and R&B favourites, spreads across the island with a tangy, zesty zing. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the festival and not even see a beach.

In 2005, R&B diva Alicia Keys was the headliner at the highest-profile festival concert, the Friday night show at the Sir Garfield Sobers Gymnasium outside Bridgetown. Keys’s sold-out performance was in good company; US jazz stars Jason Moran, Ellis Marsalis, the YellowJackets, the Charles Flores Quintet, and Pieces of a Dream played other shows in the festival. Japanese keyboard star Keiko Matsui shared a stage with Puerto Rican percussionist Tito de Garcia and Cuban youths Joven Soul, among other acts. The most expensive show is the (usually sold-out) dinner show at the posh Colony Club hotel. Last year’s featured act was homegrown star Arturo Tappin, a skilled and fiercely beautiful saxophonist. He played in a quartet with Aziza, Stanley Banks, and Buddy Williams. It’s a delicious recipe served up in a spectacular setting.

Festival organiser Gilbert Rowe, grabbing a sandwich for lunch on the final day of the 2005 event, looked like one of the tourists who flock to the island for Barbados Jazz. In a sunny plaid shirt and a straw fedora, the former travel agent talked about his vision, 13 years before, of starting the festival. He had helped establish the slightly older St Lucia Jazz Festival, and thought the same thing could fly in his homeland. So he “try a thing”, as a West Indian would say. He said he lost his shirt the first few years, but stuck with it. Now he draws big corporate sponsors — not the least of which is the Barbados Tourism Authority.

The festival runs at different venues from early in the week, concluding with a two-day outdoor fete in the breathtakingly lovely Farley Hill National Park, which overlooks the cliffs of the east coast. It was in the dappled shade of the mahogany trees in the park’s natural amphitheatre that Rowe sat, in a food court that was the centre of a festive vendors’ market. Keiko Matsui had just come off stage, triumphant, the crowd still rocked by her powerful performance.

The festival’s contribution to the Barbados economy isn’t slight. Rowe boasted that it generates B$5 million each year in revenue. It comes from the tourists who pack the hotels for the week, many of them regional visitors. There are also spin-off effects that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Many of the young local performers who play alongside the foreign acts are themselves products of the festival. Rowe said there have been training programmes and shows to push local jazz, both to grow the at-home audience and to encourage young players to look beyond the calypso and soca scene that can be limiting to musical skill.

Some of the local kids were in the spotlight at Ba-Jazz, the offical fringe event, which takes place nightly during the festival at Time Out at the Gap Hotel in St Lawrence Gap. The Stefan Walcott Trio, featuring Walcott on keyboards, Neil Newton on bass, and David Carnegie on drums, kept the audience on the edge of their seats nightly, then ceded the stage to Joven Soul, the baby-faced Cubans with the skills of hardened jazz criminals. Barbadian singer Janelle Headley also sang with Walcott’s band, putting down “God Bless the Child” in her sweet, sad voice, with big talent and obvious potential.

Other fringe events include the open stage at the Waterfront, a regular spot for jazz in the heart of Bridgetown. Trinidadian “kysofusion” (a blend of jazz and calypso) creator Michael Boothman was there after the Keys concert, jamming with the jazz musicians in the house who walked with their instruments and waited for such an opportunity.

At Farley Hill, when the sun started to go down, the big, white-tented stage was bathed in electric pink, blue, and yellow light. The ruins of a plantation house stood behind the stage, a dramatic backdrop for this invigorating emerging phenomenon.

The Barbados Jazz Festival runs from 9 to 15 January, 2006. For more information, visit www.barbadosjazzfestival.com