“Our country should be like
this all the time!”
– visitor to the Carifesta Village
A TUK BAND from Barbados, with its energetic performers, powerful drums and unique “penny whistle” enthrals the audience. People sample soursop fudge at the TT booth, chow down on Guyanese pepperpot and enjoy fried bake made with breadfruit flour from Guadeloupe. Children learn how to crack whips at the workshop put on by our NGO and Bois Academy, and listen to readings at the Bocas Lit Fest.
Beautiful clothes, jewellery and fashion from Haiti, Jamaica and Montserrat keep people coming back to support these cultural entrepreneurs. Craft, jazz, youth activities, dance, new contacts and friends made. As the theme of the 2003 Suriname Carifesta said, “The Essence of Togetherness; the Spirit of the Caribbean.”
At the first Carifesta in Guyana 1972, the symbol used was a hand holding the sun, speaking of the aspirations of Caribbean people.
Over the decades, the themes have reflected that desire for greater development and unity. In 2008, when Guyana had another opportunity to host the festival, their theme echoed the sentiments of that first gathering – “One Caribbean, One Purpose; Our Culture, Our Life.”
Other countries recognised the importance of tapping into our collective strength. In 1992 TT declared “Together is Strength,” Cuba in 1979 proclaimed “A Rainbow of Peoples under One Caribbean Sun,” while St Kitts and Nevis chose “Caribbean Arts and Culture…Reflecting, Consolidating, Moving On” in 2000.
In 2019, Carifesta reflects more than a mix of culture from around the region. As families stream through the venues, taking photographs and soaking up the atmosphere, in conversations and in the performances, there is a sense of wanting to connect.
There is also the understanding that the artists have come to showcase their best talent, given that Carifesta has become synonymous with the pinnacle of Caribbean artistry. But beyond the performances, food and merchandise is the recognition of the power of the arts to transform and unify, and the critical role of this regional festival in bringing the Caribbean closer together.
Interestingly, although a Caribbean Festival of the Arts was attempted in Puerto Rico in 1952, its limited success was undoubtedly a factor of the colonial environment that permeated. Political independence allowed for a new vision of the Caribbean to be articulated, but subsequent attempts to unify the Caribbean through political instruments were limited by the socio-political dynamics of the time.
As noted by Caricom researchers, the “celebration of Caribbean arts hosted by Puerto Rico in 1952, the 1958 British West Indian Federation and the Caribbean Free Trade Area of 1965, were all precursors to the roving, multidisciplinary, mega exposition of Caribbean cultures.” Even today, the Caricom Single Market and Economy initiative is experiencing challenges, many of these centred on the concept of free movement of professionals.
The question then becomes, outside of political approaches, how can we ensure that the impact of Carifesta will be a lasting one? If we accept that the arts are a vital catalyst for change and empowerment, then we need to provide opportunities for citizens to interact with the arts in a safe and enjoyable way, like at Carifesta.
Our decision-makers therefore need to explore the possibilities of pedestrianising our cities; that is, allowing vehicular traffic in only certain areas and organising shuttles into the main business districts. The streets may then be given over to local food, music and performance arts, as well as green spaces.
A large part of the value of Carifesta is the fact that artisans and entrepreneurs are in one visible space, where people can come at their leisure during the day or night. This is the idea behind some of the larger markets in the world such as Portobello Market in London. A permanent avenue of the arts should thus be created, along democratic and open lines, and not on a corrupt and nepotistic basis, as occurs frequently. And of course, in the avenue of arts, pride of place must be given to our national instrument, the pan. Artists understand that every opportunity must be taken to claim this instrument of the future, born out of the struggle of the community and forged in the essence of warriorhood and ancestral spirits.
It is the same with all of the art across the region; our talents are powerful because of where they came from. Artists understand this, so when it comes to Caribbean integration, it is they who must lead the way.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist,
communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN