“The Caribbean is like a melting pot for all different cultures from all different parts of the world,” said Andrea, one of Bernice’s friends from Guyana. “That’s a result of how the people came together. And now we’re here to celebrate how unique we are and how we can be united.”
– Extract from Bernice Akuamoah’s Unicef report, Carifesta 1972
CARIFESTA, the Caribbean Festival of Arts, opened yesterday at the Queen’s Park Savannah, once more placing TT at the centre of attention for this celebration of artistic excellence. For almost 50 years, this coming together of artists has symbolised the dream of true Caribbean unity, where the peoples of this diverse region move as one force to improve the lives of all of it citizens.
Certainly, the positive energies generated by the festival are undeniable. Over ten days, our country will host some 30 nations showcasing about 3,000 artistes and business owners. Overall, it is anticipated that around 250,000 people will pass through the village at the Savannah, whether as performers, visitors or cultural entrepreneurs. This is the fourth time TT has hosted the festival, coming at a time when an injection of positivity is needed.
But our challenges go beyond the economy and crime. There are countless examples of how the work and value of the artist are still not recognised. We struggle even now to fully integrate the arts at all levels of education. The incorporation of our cultural history and heritage into the preparation of teachers does not seem to take place.
And the pan, our national instrument, continues to battle for recognition. This despite the fact that countries from Australia to Japan and the US use our instrument as one of the teaching foundations for their music programmes, and TT is considered the mecca for learning about this inspired instrument.
Moreover, as recent encounters with migration have shown, our proximity to one another does not necessarily guarantee that we understand or empathise with each other. So against this background, when it comes to Carifesta, what is the “meaning of culture in the Caribbean?”
This turn of phrase is borrowed from the title of the publication that was produced after Carifesta Symposia 1992, the first time that TT hosted the festival. At that time, the focus of the discussion was identifying a new aesthetic for the Caribbean. That is to say, how can the nations of our region reinvent themselves, develop a deeper understanding of who we are, who we want to be.
As Prof Edward Kamau Brathwaite put it, our Caribbean aesthetic “is a critical communal sense of the essence of one’s culture.”
That communal or community-based foundation of culture is at the core of the peoples who live in this region – the indigenous community, Africans, East Indians and other groupings. The relatively recent manifestations of this shared culture, from dancehall to soca, reggae, pitchkaree and rapso, are signs that we are increasingly drawing on our ancestral roots to create cultural forms that are relevant to us.
So what should be the mandate of a Caribbean Festival of Arts? Almost 70 years ago, an attempt was made to have a festival in Puerto Rico. It was 1952 and Caribbean nations were still under colonial rule. At that time, only Jamaica and TT took part from the British colonies.
It was not until Guyana achieved independence in 1966 and then republican status in 1970 that the idea of a regional festival began to take form again. Artists lobbied for a cultural desk in the Caricom secretariat and by 1972, the first true Carifesta took place in Guyana.
The news headlines from the time reveal not just the excitement over the festival but what it meant for a new sense of self for the Caribbean – “BWIA: carrier for Carifesta ’72,” “Arawak Indians at rehearsals,” “Art in the Caribbean: a difference in attitude,” “Caribbean Cultural Revolution,” “A grand experiment,” “We need to know who we are,” “A unifying force,” “Parliament of Creative Arts”...
Have we achieved the aesthetic that was so anticipated in Guyana? Where should US$6 million be spent? Should emphasis be placed on grand events or community activities that strengthen local cultural forms? How will the outcome of symposia impact institutions of learning and the planning for future gatherings?
As Caribbean people it is important for us to ask these questions if we want our culture to have meaning and achieve the aspirations expressed at that first Carifesta, almost 50 years ago.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN