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CARIFESTA: do we really understand?

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After all the apprehensions, the 13th edition of the Caribbean Festival of Arts and Culture (CARIFESTA) concluded in Barbados last Sunday night.The apprehensions stemmed both from the historical nature of the festival, host nations having backed out before due to financial or organizational difficulties, as well as the onset of what was then tropical storm Harvey, just as CARIFESTA was due to begin.

In the first case, since Barbados had won the bid to host the 2017 CARIFESTA, its economic situation had dramatically worsened, to the extent that many Barbadians began to question the wisdom of fulfilling this commitment. There seems to be little doubt that such difficulties must have impacted on that country’s ability to meet its obligations in the manner originally envisaged, but whatever the difficulties, Barbados can at least take credit for manfully sticking to its guns and hosting the festival, in what one parliamentarian admitted on Monday were “very difficult circumstances” (Government Senator James Paul quoted in the Barbadian media).

Paul was commenting on the festival, following public criticisms in Barbados and beyond about its organization. Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, for instance, is quoted as saying that she was “not impressed” by its execution, describing CARIFESTA XIII as being “poorly organized” and plagued by a “low turnout”. These views were corroborated by some of the Vincentian participants, and future organizers, most immediately Trinidad and Tobago, hosts in 2019, need to pay heed to the most recent experience.

But there are issues far bigger than shortcomings in hosting, pertaining to the nature of CARIFESTA itself and its role and place in Caribbean society and development. Since its inception in Guyana in 1972, with the late Forbes Burnham being a most enthusiastic host, the festival has been hosted by eight different nations, ranging in size from Guyana to tiny St Kitts/Nevis (2000), and in economic clout from Trinidad and Tobago (three times) to Haiti (2015).

Its lofty beginnings and high expectations have had to adjust to Caribbean realities, including what this writer perceives as a far less enthusiastic political leadership in the region, especially in its appreciation of the arts and culture in the Caribbean. Clearly there is need for deep discussion on these critical matters if CARIFESTA in particular, and the region in general, are to be central to our developmental thrusts.

To what degree do Caribbean governments, individually and collectively, see our development in these areas as being an integral part of Caribbean societal and economic development in the 21st century? How could the Caribbean continue to stage its premier cultural festival without a prominent place in it for the Caribbean’s greatest contribution to the world of music, the steelpan?

It was pleasing to note that in spite of the weaknesses and shortcomings, there was some attempt to link the festival and its exponents and exhibitors to the “market place”. The festival cannot merely be a “show”; it must provide a concrete base and opportunity for the flowering of the arts and culture within the region and, yes, an affirmation that there are “careers” here too, just as in medicine, engineering or law. Our fashion designers, visual arts exhibitors, playwrights and poets, pannists and drummers are every bit as important as those in more established and recognized professions. We must treat them, and CARIFESTA, as such.

In this regard, I must express my disappointment with what I can only perceive is a trend, manifested in the 2017 festival, of Carnival being considered almost as the essence of Vincentian cultural expression. The very nature of the delegation chosen, no disrespect to the artistes themselves, and the emphasis when we got the chance to be featured, speaks volumes. I hope that I was not alone, in viewing the closing ceremony, in noting with horror that while other countries placed emphasis on exhibiting and promoting indigenous expressions, SVG went for soca. Nothing wrong with soca at all, but is that the final message we wanted to leave with a worldwide audience? Is promotion of Carnival and all its perceived virtues, the best we have to offer?

I conclude by applauding our entire delegation for its representation in trying circumstances. However,I can only hope that we can engage as a nation in very frank discussion, arising out of our CARIFESTA experience, on these matters. They are essential to our very being and our forward thrust.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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