Carifesta XI: A good time for another reassessment

Carifesta XI, 2013, closes its curtains today in Paramaribo, Suriname.  At its closing this evening it is expected that Haiti will be declared the host and the venue for Carifesta XII in 2015.  Like Suriname, Haiti is one of the non-English speaking Caribbean territories brought into the Caricom fold, and will be the third such nation to host the festival, after Suriname (2003 and 2013) and Cuba (1979).

As an aside, the part played by these countries in Carifesta is significant; Cuba quickly stepped in to host the third festival just six years after it started.  This was no doubt prompted at the time by the first (unofficial) ‘charter’ for the regional arts set down at the Georgetown meeting of artists in 1970 when it was acknowledged that the arts of the Caribbean should include the non-English territories (see Andrew Salkey, The Georgetown Journal, 1971).  It also sprang directly from the fact that when Jamaica hosted Carifesta II in 1976, they invited several Latin American countries, setting the tone for this inclusive definition of the arts and culture of the Caribbean.

It was further significant because of the factor of ideology; the Cold War was still hot and some Caribbean countries were newly embracing communist Havana, while Castro was placing great value on the acquisition of West Indian friends.  It is now the post-Cold War era, but the same geopolitics continue with Caricom’s official endorsement of Havana and high Caribbean respect for Cuban culture and arts.

20110807artsonsundayIt is similar with Haiti for cultural and political reasons other than ideology.  Respect for Haitian culture and art is equally high, including the place of Haiti’s history as the first independent nation arising out of the successful slave revolt.  This was added to the depth of Anglophone Caribbean outreach to Haiti following its devastating series of adversities, which reinforced its inclusion in the Caricom fraternity.  It is expected that Caribbean culture, through Carifesta in Haiti in 2015, will be a further experience in cultural enrichment and empowerment.  Haiti as host is therefore an important step forward.  It is certainly of great import to the meaning of Carifesta and the regional creative experience that Haiti will host the next festival immediately after Suriname; that Suriname hosted it twice; and that Cuba did it so early in Carifesta’s history.  These represent three different linguistic groups, and three different cultural corners of the Caribbean.

These extended boundaries and definitions of Caribbean cultures and Carifesta’s reach, honour both those set down in 1970 and those that arise today in discussions of the region’s culture and identity.  And this is where the Carifesta Symposia come in, as agents of assessment, definition and pointing the ways forward.  It was mooted during the past week that one symposium should be devoted to assess the present state and the future of Carifesta, although it was not on the official programme.  These symposia provide fora for the interrogation of issues in the arts and culture of the region, Caribbean thought and identity.  More recently there has been an emphasis on management, business, tourism and marketing of the artistic product.  The 2013 Symposia were dominated by the overall theme of the ‘Caribbean Marketplace for the Arts’ advanced by the Caricom Secretariat through Riane De Haas and Dr Hillary Brown.

The opening ceremony of Carifesta XI
The opening ceremony of Carifesta XI

This ‘theme’ was also a project which tried to put that theoretical concept into practice – the idea of marketing the artistic talent, the cultural product of the Caribbean; positioning the region to further break into the international market; to reach into Europe and international arts festivals.  This included having agents in from Europe to actually effect this.  In this way Carifesta performance and exposure would potentially expose performers to the world, possible contracts and earnings. This somewhat resembles elements of the new, so far unused re-invented design for Carifesta, which aims to position Carifesta as a strong world famous international festival that unites Caribbean people and excites the world.

The Symposia act not only as agencies for theorizing, but as catalysts for shaping and moving the Caribbean cultural definition and Carifesta forward.  It is ironic that one definite move in this direction was taken when there was an assessment of Carifesta in Paramaribo in 2003 led by Dr Carole Mason-Bishop of the Caricom Secretariat, and this kind of focus on another vital area came 10 years later at the same venue – Suriname in 2013 led by Riane Dehaas and Dr Hillary Brown of the Caricom Secretariat.

But how does this relate to what actually happened?  Carifesta XI also had a Focus on Youth, which in a big way, was tied to this Caribbean Marketplace project.  Some countries responded to the Focus by sending groups and talent, and there was a deliberate exposure of talent to international agents.  This was dominated by music.  There were many bands and performers and it was noted that the Youth Village was the venue holding the most populous events in Carifesta.  There were many concerts and super-concerts at the Youth Village capturing wide popular interest and traffic-stopping crowds of several thousands each evening.  This was similar to another very popular central venue – the Palmentuin (or Palm Gardens) in the city centre at which the integration of the popular culture into Carifesta in Suriname was most notable.  This was a remarkable feature in 2003 and again in evidence this year.

However, this major gain was also a major disadvantage.  It rather limited the Youth Focus and the Youth Village to popular entertainment.  There seemed to be insufficient intellectual focus – exposure to involvement in a wider range of cultural affairs and regional issues affecting youth and culture.  The idea of a youth focus might also call for greater expansion of the mind and the re-orientation of Caribbean youth.  But it did provide an avenue for talent and expression.  It did provide Carifesta with its most popular outreach and integration with the popular culture.

This contributed to another feature of Carfesta XI – it was extremely varied.  It was a very crowded programme marked by great variety.  These also made it a nightmare to administer and, not surprisingly, it was plagued by daily shifts, changes, announcements and persistent flaws in scheduling and time-tabling.  It was impossible to properly keep in touch with the events and the programme.

This amazing variety in the programme was another major virtue that was also a major vice.  The several events, exhibitions and workshops made very colourful, interesting but hectic days and nights in Paramaribo and out in village areas – a good job of popularising Carifesta.  But it was impossible to follow, take in and appreciate the work of any one country because of this and the chaos.
With this state of affairs, it was also impossible for participants and performers from one country to see the work of their counterparts from other countries.  In addition to the situation described above, very often their own workload, their busy rehearsal and performance schedule in scattered locations with attendant transportation limitations prevented them from seeing other performances.  This effectively cancelled out one of the advantages of Carifesta – a cultural exchange, which was only half realised.

The Caribbean Festival of the Arts aims to showcase the best of the region’s art, performance and culture – to be a place to see the region’s creativity.  These are to be shown off to the world – and to each other.  But the other reason for failings in this area is that the territories are for the most part not sending their best to Carifesta.  In many disciplines this ceased to be the norm many years and probably five festivals ago.
Much of that is fair generalisation, and more specific and detailed analysis of the exhibits and performances will show variations upon this theme.  That, though, will have to be done in another discussion, as there was a range of quality from the excellent and outstanding to the indifferent and downright dubious.  Carifesta survives and a very accurate assessment will suggest that it will survive, with high costs not immediately threatening its abandonment.  A number of changes in the way it is organised were attempted in 2013, but it is certainly a good time for another reassessment.

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