Carifesta IX: celebrating ourselves

In late September, Trinidad and Tobago will host the ninth Caribbean Festival of Arts and Culture, Carifesta IX

All images are from the opening ceremony of Carifesta VI in Trinidad and Tobago in 1995. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockAll images are from the opening ceremony of Carifesta VI in Trinidad and Tobago in 1995. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockAll images are from the opening ceremony of Carifesta VI in Trinidad and Tobago in 1995. Photograph by Jeffrey Chock

“You going Carifesta?”

Not to be left out of the excitement, the corn soup vendor on Independence Square is getting into the spirit of the festival to come. She gets a few non-committal shrugs from passers-by.

Downtown Port of Spain on a humid Monday in June has that sticky Carnival Friday feeling. Two blocks west along the Brian Lara Promenade, Port of Spain’s main liming artery, a parade is in progress.

A promise of things to come, the launch of Carifesta IX in host nation Trinidad and Tobago is a bright and noisy affair. There is a cacophonic mix of deejay trucks blasting a soca rendition of the Carifesta IX theme song, live tassa drummers, the shrieks of Wild Indians and blue devils. Young moko jumbies dip and dance over the crowds gathered along the sidewalks.

Pedestrians, vendors, and Monday evening limers are taken aback by this sudden manifestation of Carifesta. With the distractions of Carnival, then a date with destiny at the football World Cup in Germany, the nation’s attentions have been focused elsewhere. But after the parade reaches its destination under the shadow of the Twin Towers, the launch goes into high gear. Festival officials speak cheerfully of plans for the regional festival, to be held in Trinidad and Tobago from September 22 to October 1 this year. The speeches come thick and fast, resonating with optimism.

It will be a different kind of Carifesta this time around, they say. A strategic analysis in 2004 suggested that the festival was “uncompetitive in the regional and international context and no longer fulfilling its mandate”. So this year’s festival will be bigger and better, and will have a permanent spot on the calendar of signature cultural events in the Caribbean. Carifesta IX festival director Joy Caesar feels confident that the plans for this year’s event will lay the foundation for a new festival experience.

“We are guided by our own experiences in the culture of our countries and the Caribbean as a whole. We are forging this new Carifesta, using Carifesta IX as a test piece. We are saying to ourselves, how can we make this better for the region?”

Part of the makeover is ideological. Carifesta IX has the ambitious theme “Celebrating our People: Contesting the World Stage”. In Cascade, a Port of Spain suburb in the foothills of the Northern Range, Carifesta IX’s artistic director, the eminent novelist Earl Lovelace, explains what he means by celebration and contestation.

“We have not really celebrated our people . . . the people who stand for the Caribbean and those who have resisted, and the creations surrounding that resistance. The cultural forms that have been developed in opposition to the impositions put upon us. Orisa, Baptist, or King Sailor or Black Indian, and other similar forms coming out of other parts of the Caribbean. I don’t think that we have investigated them deeply enough. The problem is how to make us see these things.”

There is much more, Lovelace says, to resistance than just the opposition of our ancestors to those who would dehumanise them. “[Resistance] is what makes us unique. In engaging the other, you take from the other as well, but the substance of who we are is our resistance.” So resistance is also about recognising another way of being.

The task of those artists involved in Carifesta, and particularly those focused on the programming of the festival, is to transform the theme into concrete artistic statements that reach the audience loud and clear. That said, Lovelace is not interested in spoon-feeding the Caribbean audience. This Carifesta will be no dumbing-down of ideology. The display of art, the range of discussions at the symposia, the community festivals, the book fair, should all succeed in putting the theme of resistance into the consciousness of the Caribbean audience.

In the run-up to Carifesta, Lovelace says the plan is to have a kind of awareness-building, to encourage the audience see the festival in a sober light, not just as a jump-up.

In 34 years of existence, Carifesta has experienced highs and lows in terms of its relevance. It was expected to forge the kind of regional unity that the politicians couldn’t begin to articulate.

The first real conference of regional artists took place in 1967, ironically at the University of Kent in the UK, an initiative of the London-based Caribbean Artists Movement, spearheaded by Jamaica-born writer Andrew Salkey, Trinidad-born activist John La Rose, and his compatriot novelist Samuel Selvon. Barbadian D. Elliot Parris, speaking at a symposia at Carifesta V in 1992, noted that “it was a deep source of embarrassment to many present that such an important and historic event was being held in England, the seat of colonialism for the English-speaking Caribbean, even though political independence had been gained already by many of the former British colonies of the Caribbean.”

Where the politicians and their Federation failed, the artists triumphed. Grassroots cultural movements blossomed across the region. And when the first Carifesta was staged in Guyana in 1972, it was met with relief by artists and politicians alike. Symbolically, ideologically, politically, Carifesta ’72 was a signal that the Caribbean was becoming more than a loose collection of islands.

But, as if such crucial exercises in region-building need only be a collection of fleeting memories in the minds of those who were actually there, some subsequent Carifestas were not even properly documented. In later years attempts were made to rectify this. In 1992 the proceedings of the symposia of Carifesta V were published under the title “The New Aesthetic and the Meaning of Culture in the Caribbean — The Dream Coming in with the Rain”. Precious few copies exist of this document that includes papers by everyone from Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall and Kathak dancer and choreographer Mondira Balkaransingh to Jamaican scholar and choreographer Rex Nettleford and Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite.

This absence of documentation is one of the things Carifesta will now attempt to address. Lovelace sees Carifesta IX as the start of a lasting cultural legacy for future generations of Caribbean artists. “It’s urgent now, more than ever, to know who you are and what you’re doing,” he says. “I hope that Carifesta gives the Caribbean artists and the people the chance to rally and discover and to see . . . how you proceed with building a civilisation.”

Financially, Carifesta has found governmental support inconsistent: levels of investment have varied as costs rose over the years. The process of regional self-definition and celebration was pretty much stalled by the early 1980s, and Carifesta fell into an abrupt silence. Maurice Bishop’s revolutionary government in Grenada in the early 80s backed gatherings of the Caribbean Intellectual Workers movement, convened under the guidance of Barbadian novelist George Lamming. But otherwise, artists and intellectuals seemed to be relegated to the periphery, even though the words and melodies of Marley, Rudder, and Brathwaite echoed across the region into the consciousness of all who encountered them.

Between 1981 and 1992, no Carifestas were held. The idea seemed to be eclipsed as national and regional festivals flourished — Tobago Heritage, Crop Over in Barbados, Best Village in Trinidad, and a host of “jazz” festivals scattered across the region and capturing the attentions of a new cultural tourist.

When it was revived in 1992, George Lamming gripped the podium on the stage at the Central Bank Auditorium in Port of Spain and asked again, like some voice out of history, some of those painful questions that regional governments still can’t find the answers to.

“Eleven of twelve sovereign states — some with a population not large enough to fill a major football stadium — parade eleven and twelve embassies in the most expensive citadels of the modern world. What is the meaning of this madness, this absurdity that exposes us to daily ridicule among the nations whose charity we seek? To consider the process of regional integration afresh requires a new and radical kind of attitude that concentrates on the thought and practice of the excluded majority.”

Back in Cascade, Lovelace waxes lyrical and nostalgic about the central role that artists must play in the organisation of festivals like Carifesta. He says artists must be sensible and understand there are political interests wanting to be manifest.

“This is not taking place in a vacuum — it comes out of a history, a kind of way of dealing with things, what you see as who is powerful in the situation. I think it’s a struggle to educate ourselves. We have to see that the role of the politician doesn’t obscure the significance of the event.”

In 2006, the issues that engage Caribbean intellectuals and web savants are essentially the same questions that faced young post-colonials in the 1960s and shattered revolutionaries in the 80s, and which cast the shadow of structural adjustment and limitless American cable television in the 90s.

In the wake of independence movements, do we really have anything to fight for? What do we celebrate when what sells is not necessarily what uplifts or questions or challenges? How is our development informed by our history? And how do we make Carifesta financially viable without turning it into the superficial bacchanal of so many once meaningful national festivals?

“Now we have everything to fight for,” Lovelace says. “This generation may have been sold the idea of having achieved an independence, and so they feel they have nothing to fight for. But when you look around, you see you have everything to fight for.”

For those who were there — the artists of that heady time when the Caribbean dreamed of legitimising its identity, celebrating nation languages, revelling in freedom dances — Carifesta was an important beginning. But the jury is still out on whether Carifesta, the Caribbean Festival of the Arts, retains its relevance to the people of the region, in particular to a generation of artists who have no first-hand experience of independence or revolutionary movements.

But Carifesta IX, regardless of a last-minute rush to complete plans, political interference, or generational feelings of under-representation, will be the type of gran z’affaire that culture lovers around the region have come to expect. An important part of the programme will be signal events at which master artists chosen by participating countries will be showcased. From Trinidad and Tobago, a Leroy Clarke retrospective has been scheduled, as well as a “Super Concert” featuring soca ambassador Machel Montano and his band Xtatik. Carifesta will be a platform to engage their many fans and perhaps win them a new audience.

Joy Caesar is expecting contingents as large as a hundred from some regional countries. She hopes that the TT$18 million budget — $10 million more than was made available for the last Carifesta held in Trinidad, in 1995 — will cover the grand plans and fulfil the expectations of both artists and audience.

Significantly, younger regional artists have been forcefully staking their claim. The organisational structure of Carifesta IX is dominated by known and established elders, but the younger generation of Caribbean artists wants to know when their turn will come to shine, to dream a festival of their own imagination into being. Perhaps a major lesson hidden in the theme of Carifesta IX is what this new generation will create to resist an older notion of Caribbean identity that does not find room for the newness of their voice.

Caesar doesn’t agree that contemporary creativity is being sidelined. “It’s not the case that Carifesta will only be about people who have already celebrated themselves. It is going to be an all-encompassing showcase of the arts in the region,” she insists.

“We’re talking about people, about all kinds of disciplines in the arts, the masters, those who went before, who gave us the legacy. But we’re also saying, how can we leave a legacy, something for those to come? And that is where the influence of the children and the youth really come into effect, and we want them to be an integral part of the Carifesta, so that it would mean something to them in years to come.”