St Kitts: Small island, big music

Garry Steckles is already looking forward to the highlight of his musical year, the St Kitts Music Festival

Dennis Brown. Photograph by David CorioHugh Masekela. Photograph by David Corio

I love a good music festival. And over the years I’ve been lucky enough to attend more than my fair share of them.

My fond memories include the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which was launched in 1980 by a couple of good friends, Alain Simard and Andre Menard — we used to promote Peter Tosh concerts together — and went on from humble beginnings to become one of the world’s two or three leading events of its kind.

Then there was the late and sadly lamented Reggae Sunsplash, still, in my books, the greatest annual reggae festival, from its inception in 1978 until it ground to a halt in the late 90s. I saw so many Sunsplashes — at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay, at the Ranny Williams Centre in Kingston, and at the Bob Marley Centre in Mobay — that they’ve faded into a blur of bleary-eyed mornings fuelled by fish tea, mannish water, the occasional rum, and never-ending drum and bass riddems.

But my most indelible musical memories, at least where festivals are concerned, have been at a comparatively new event — so new, in fact, that it’s hard to believe it’ll be celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2006.

I’m talking about the St Kitts Music Festival, and there’s a key word in its simple title that explains why it’s so special. The all-important word: music.

Not jazz. Not reggae. Not pan. Not hip-hop. Not calypso. Not gospel. Not salsa. Not blues. Not ska. Not one, that is, but all. And then some.

I heard its opening notes on the evening of Wednesday 26 June, 1996. They were played by the Su Win-Ching Chinese Ensemble, in full stage regalia and performing with traditional Chinese instruments. And I heard the most recent in the wee hours of the morning of Monday 27 June, 2005. They were played by Wyclef Jean at the end of an epic stage performance that rocked the grounds of the historic Fort Thomas Hotel, the festival’s traditional home, like they’d never been rocked before.

In between, the St Kitts Music Festival has attracted a smorgasbord of performers ranging from traditional country to classic calypso to Sinatra-esque big band to African jazz. Plus, of course, substantial doses of soca, reggae, and other Caribbean sounds.

Among the highlights of festivals past have been performances by Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African flugelhorn maestro; the late Dennis Brown, the crown prince of reggae (in what would be, sadly, his last live show); Culture, the wonderful Jamaican harmony trio; funk and R&B veterans Kool and the Gang; country superstar Kenny Rogers; Bobby Caldwell and his big band; Barbadian saxophone virtuoso Arturo Tappin; reggae veterans Inner Circle (who were joined on stage during the first festival by Nation of Islam leader Lewis Farrakhan, himself a former calypsonian of note and still a superb violinist, for a rousing rendition of Bob Marley’s “One Love”); soul legends Peabo Bryson, the Manhattans, Freddie Jackson, Sister Sledge, the Isley Brothers, and Percy Sledge; calypso and soca greats the Mighty Sparrow, David Rudder, Black Stalin, Baron, and Arrow; reggae’s Morgan Heritage, Burning Spear, Tony Rebel, Freddie McGregor, John Holt, and Maxi Priest; hip-hop stars DMX, Ludacris, and Busta Rhymes; gospel standouts Cece Winans, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Carlene Davis; local favourites Crucial Bankie, Small Axe, Nu-Vybes Band, Masud Sadiki, and Zemenfes Kidus; jazz notables Earl Klugh and the Caribbean Jazz Project; pannist extraordinary Andy Narrell; crossover hit-makers Sean Paul, Shaggy, and Rupee; and Haiti’s renowned Tabou Combo.

If that’s not something for just about every musical taste, I don’t know what is.

The success of a festival that dares to be different is a source of enormous and understandable pride for the people of St Kitts, a small eastern Caribbean island with a population of fewer than 40,000 and with no previous history of staging major international cultural events.

And it’s a source of particular pride to the man who turned the ambitious concept of a major league festival into a reality a decade ago: Dwyer G. Astaphan.

Astaphan, who was then St Kitts’ minister of tourism (he’s now minister of national security, justice, immigration, and labour), recalls those heady days, and how he arrived at the something-for-everyone formula. “I didn’t think it would be enough if we had just another jazz festival — I felt we needed to have a large range of musical genres.”

And while he’s happy with the festival’s success and confident about its future, Astaphan would like to see an even stronger emphasis on attracting top-flight Caribbean performers. “I’ve got some real worries about where Caribbean music’s heading these days,” he says. “Some of the stuff that’s popular at the moment is just rubbish, and I’d like to see our festival providing a showcase for the really talented artistes from all over the region.”

It’s a philosophy that’s shared by Astaphan’s successor in the tourism portfolio, Ricky Skerritt, himself an avid music fan with a special affinity for vintage calypso. The festival now falls under Skerritt’s ministerial umbrella, and while it was far too early at press time to even speculate on names for the landmark 2006 festival, he has already indicated we can look for a stronger emphasis on classic Caribbean music like roots reggae and traditional calypso — to which I extend a grateful tip of the Steckles editorial hat.

He’s also hinted strongly that one of his booking priorities will be to ensure that St Kitts’s own reggae superstar, Crucial Bankie, features prominently on the 2006 lineup. Pause for another tip of the Steckles hat — we’re talking about one of the two or three leading living exponents of roots reggae, right up there, in my books, with Joseph Hill of Culture, and there’s no higher praise.

The 2006 St Kitts Music Festival, by the way, won’t be held on its traditional dates — the last Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in June. This time around, the festival will be held the following week, 29 June through 2 July. The reason? St Kitts has another landmark event taking place during the final full week of June: the island will be staging its first international Test cricket match, between the West Indies and India, over five days from 22 to 26 June. More cricket history will be made on 24 May, when St Kitts hosts its first-ever international of any kind, a one-day game between the same two teams.

Both matches are a prelude to the Cricket World Cup, coming to the Caribbean in the spring of 2007, when St Kitts will be home to four of the 16 competing teams — Australia, South Africa, Scotland, and Holland — in the tournament’s opening round-robin stage.