All that St. Lucia jazz

The St Lucia Jazz Festival fends off regional competition to keep its position as the Caribbean’s premier jazz event

An enthusiastic audience at the 2005 St Lucia Jazz Festival. Photograph courtesy the St Lucia Tourist Board

The Pitons may be St Lucia’s most famous landmarks, but when it comes to events, it’s the annual Jazz Festival that has really made the island world-famous. Started fifteen years ago, amid local criticism about the foreignness of the concept and poor attendance, the St Lucia Jazz Festival has blossomed to become one of the best-known destination events in the Caribbean.

The idea for the festival sprang out of a desire to find new and innovative ways to market St. Lucia, particularly during the traditionally low-season month of May. And although its organisers were faced with the challenge of sustaining a jazz festival in a region where such events have often had a short shelf-life, they managed to make it a success. In 2005 alone, the festival earned the island about EC$62 million.

The reason, says Kirby Allain, public relations manager of the St Lucia Tourist Board, is evident to anyone who attends. “The open secret of our success is the fact that we have geographically dispersed the event all over the country, so when you visit any jazz venue, you will experience St Lucia and St Lucians,” he says. “Our competitors make the mistake of trying to compete with St. Lucia based on line-up, but that is not the only important thing. We believe the most crucial ingredient is allowing people to experience the island.”

And thanks to the concept of the Fringe, they do. Unlike similar events elsewhere in the Caribbean, the St Lucia Jazz Festival is not confined to any one locale. While the main acts perform on picturesque Pigeon Island, other acts — international, regional, and local — perform in venues around the island, as part of the Fringe activities. Apart from showcasing the island’s natural beauty, the Fringe is vital to making the festival accessible to all St Lucians, because its events are free. “When we provide for the local populace, everybody benefits,” Allain explains, citing the concerts in Derek Walcott Square in the heart of Castries, which always draw large crowds.

Despite its popularity, St Lucia Jazz has had to compete with a new crop of jazz festivals around the region, particularly the relatively new Tobago Jazz Festival, which is held a mere month before. The St Lucia Tourist Board is not fazed. “Everyone’s having a festival, but can they accommodate the visitors? What else are you offering them beside a great singer? We can offer that same thing, but we can do that with a great setting and great cuisine. We make sure we have fantastic backdrops that can tell of St Lucia’s beauty,” Allain boasts.

He adds that the concessionaires are all St Lucians, so that the food and craft on sale are strictly indigenous, and the income contributes to the overall success of the event. In 2005, he says, craft sales alone amounted to EC$2 million.

Apart from the growth of event management courses and the springing up of privately run festivals, St Lucia Jazz has also benefited local musicians. “You now have more connected local musicians, ’cause we allow them the opportunities to network with foreign artistes. Next year we are having a master class, so well-known musicians will hold workshops with locals. Ronald ‘Boo’ Hinkson has been able to go well beyond St Lucian shores simply because of these connections.”

So what else can musicians and visitors look forward to in 2007? Allain says, in keeping with the title “jazz festival”, the event will feature more jazz artistes, impromptu sessions, and the reintroduction of more intimate venues, which will allow enthusiasts to appreciate the music at close quarters.