Carifesta: A reinvention which is not shaking up the world

Carifesta – the Caribbean Festival of the Arts is experiencing another revival.  The eleventh regional festival is currently being held in Suriname, having officially opened in Paramaribo last Friday evening and will run from August 16 to 25.  The Surinamese government is playing host to the rest of the Caribbean using a slightly different formula from the one used by host countries in the festivals immediately preceding this one. The minor differences are an issue and are quite relevant to the history of shifting fortunes, uncertainties and threats to survival that Carifesta has experienced throughout the 41 years of its existence.

The first point worth noting is that Carifesta XI is being held in 2013; it is five years since the last one, Carifesta X, was held in Guyana in 2008.  Since then, there have been two attempts to pull it off, including one planned for The Bahamas in 2010.  What is more, that was the second time in three years that the Nassau Government had offered to host the festival and then cancelled it.  They were the proposed hosts in 2007 and it was their announcement that they could no longer fulfil their promise that prompted Guyana to come to the rescue and take it over in 2008.  The Bahamas, eager to make amends, offered to take it up again in 2010, but once more failed to do so.

This first point then, is that the holding of Carifesta continues to be sporadic.  There has been no regularity in its time-table, and from year to year it is still never known if and when another country will volunteer to host it.  In the opening paragraph above we referred to “another revival.”  In the preceding paragraph we said Guyana “came to the rescue” in 2008.  These phrases are neither arbitrary nor accidental; they give an idea of how Carifesta has gone and its precarious fortunes over the years, where it is hoped that some regional government at some time will save the festival by volunteering to host it. Other points of note are the reasons for this sporadic characteristic, the efforts to change it, the attitude of host governments, the changing nature of the festival, the artistic trends, and the decline in its strength.

al creightonAfter different efforts and small events resembling a regional festival of the arts in the early 1950s and again in 1958-60, the newly independent Guyana hosted a meeting of regional artists in Georgetown in 1966.  There the idea of inter-Caribbean artistic endeavours was floated.  This was followed by a larger conference in 1970 to which the government invited major West Indian writers, artists, musicians and dramatists, and it was there that more definite thoughts towards a regional festival were set down.  This was followed by Guyana designing and hosting the first Carifesta in 1972.

There was feverish excitement all around, and Jamaica hosted the second edition, and the largest to date, in 1976.  Cuba followed in 1979 and Barbados just two years later in 1981.  But there was a huge gap of 11 years before it was held again.  Jamaica had planned for 1989 but suffered a major hurricane which blew the idea away. It was not until 1992 that Trinidad and Tobago recalled it to life.  Trinidad then repeated after three years in 1995.  This was followed by another long wait until St Kitts Nevis came to its rescue in 2000.  That was the first and only time that an OECS island hosted Carifesta.  None of the other small islands braved the intimidating thought of taking it on.  Suriname, newly welcomed into the Caricom fold, kept the new revival alive by hosting the eighth edition in 2003, followed by Trinidad again in 2006.

It was decided in Paramaribo in 2003 that concrete efforts should be put in place to stabilise Carifesta and rescue it from uncertainty.  This was discussed at the 2003 Carifesta Symposium with a lead presentation by Keith Nurse and others by Dr Carole Mason-Bishop, Alwyn Bully, and Al Creighton. Follow-ing accepted proposals that Carifesta should be held statutorily every two years, for the first time it was announced at the end of one Carifesta, exactly where and when the next one would be held.  So it was that in the closing ceremony in Port of Spain in 2006, The Commonwealth of The Bahamas announced itself as the hosts for the festival in 2007.  That did not materialize and when they cancelled it in 2007, Guyana offered to ensure its survival in 2008.  Not surprisingly, that was followed by another five-year gap.  In keeping with the new requirement, at the closing ceremony in Guyana in 2008, the Carifesta flame was handed to The Bahamas for Carifesta XI in 2010.  They cancelled again, and it was only after another five years that Suriname revived it.  That was a great irony, since the 2003 Symposium had crafted a new dispensation to end these gaps and uncertainties.  Keith Nurse was hired as a consultant to lead what was called ‘The Re-Invention of Carifesta.’  A Task Force chaired by Alwyn Bully and including Carole Mason-Bishop, Al Creighton, Sydney Bartlett and Directors of Culture from some of the Caribbean islands was commissioned and worked for about two years re-designing the festival.

The facts are that among the main reasons for the sporadic and uncertain nature, the irregularity, and the sometimes huge gaps between festivals was that it was a burden on host governments.  Guyana had set the tone in 1972, and deliberately repeated it in 2008, for the host country to bear the costs of the festival.  These costs had increased tremendously since the relatively easier years of 1972 before the oil crisis.  The hosts also took on all the administration, planning and logistics which made it a daunting task that quite likely frightened off many governments.

Another factor is that there is little sense of ownership of Carifesta by anyone, therefore there was no feeling anywhere of responsibility for it.  Added to that, apart from a feeling of pride and accomplishment each time a festival is hosted, a country could count on no economic gain from having held it.  Visiting countries also gained nothing.  It was an expense, not a profit.  Carifesta was totally at the mercy of volunteers – it had to wait for a government to volunteer to host it.  Then too, it had ceased to attract the best of the arts of the region.  There was no money to be made from it, and it had no real tourism focus.

The re-invented Carifesta was to establish a more organised framework administered by a secretariat, put in place a regular festival held every two years so that at any one Carifesta it would be known who would host it in two years time.  It was to be put on a firmer financial footing with all the commercial potential realized.  Countries would be able to earn money from it, as were individual groups and artistes.  Tourism would be high on the aims and gains and the festival would be thoroughly promoted internationally.

The new model was put by Caricom to regional governments at meetings of COHSOD and it was accepted and endorsed.  However, none of the governments who offered to host Carifesta since this acceptance in 2005 found this model attractive.  Trinidad, the Bahamas and Guyana all bypassed it and stuck with national modus operandi.  No wonder there was that five year gap between 2008 and 2013, because the old dispensation continued.

There were minor developments, however, because regional Directors of Culture, meeting in Paramaribo (again) decided to move towards a more collective way of handling Carifesta, using a few (not many) of the proposals put by the Task Force.  However, the festival has still not changed significantly in terms of administration and structure.

It has changed artistically.  A number of trends have developed over the many years which have seen Carifesta dwindle in artistic strength, and in the opposite direction from the vision crafted by the Task Force of a high quality arts festival showcasing the best of the Caribbean that will excite the world.  Since the 1990s it has not been the norm for the best of each country to come to Carifesta.  In drama, for example, the major plays and the major dramatists of each country have been absent.  There has even been a fall off in the performance of plays altogether.  There were ‘dramatisations’ and ‘Country Nights’ in 2003 and 2006 but no plays of any substance.

Interestingly, that changed in Carifesta X in Guyana in 2008 when, quite against the trend, a number of countries – Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Cayman Islands, Antigua and Guyana – presented major plays in “signal performances.”  Before that in Trinidad in 2006, a major play, Mary Could Dance by Richard Raghubarsingh, was performed privately on the fringe.  Despite that brief interlude in Guyana, Carifesta has gone back to minor dramatizations and it is not really known what will materialize in Suriname this year.  Guyana itself has not sent a major play.

The same goes for literature and the Carifesta Symposia.  These will not benefit from the region’s leading writers and critics.  Once again what obtained in Guyana in 2008 can be cited as having gone against the trend since there were such celebrity writers as Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, Austin Clarke, Cynthia McLeod and David Dabydeen.  In the Symposia were Rex Nettleford, Edward Baugh, Kenneth Ramchand and others.  Again, the strength of the symposia in Suriname cannot compare.

Carifesta was ‘re-invented’ in 2004, but the patent has not taken off for a festival that will shake up the world as envisioned.

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