Jazz in St Lucia: World Class..!

| May 20, 2013
Edwin Laurent

Edwin Laurent OBE CMG Economic Correspondent

In more Caribbean news, CaribDirect’s economic correspondent Edwin Laurent, reports on St Lucia Jazz Festival 2013, from St Lucia.

St Lucia’s 2013 Jazz festival came to a spectacular climax last Sunday the 12th May. The sell-out crowd had partied and danced all afternoon and evening on the lawns of Pigeon Point to the music of the O’Jays, Boo Hinkson, Brian Cuberston and others, then as night fell, R. Kelly sent the fans wild with his popular R&B and Hip Hop hits.

The Festival ended the following day after running for two weeks with events staged in 15 venues in different parts of the island. As usual, big name international and local musical stars, those that are rising, at their peak or on the wane, were in the line-up.

Included this year were, Roberto Fonseca of Cuba, Akon, Tito Puente Jr, along with top local musicians like Luther Francois and many more. Also on the mainstage were The Jacksons who were beginning a comeback tour and will continue next to Morocco and then to California.

“Jazz”, as the locals refer to “their” festival is organised by the St. Lucia Tourist Board and has been going ever since 1992, when it was conceived as an “activity/promotional tool which would command international attention”.  It has certainly been a success on that count.

Tito Puente Jr.

Tito Puente Jr. Photo courtesy curtjazz.com

The Festival though is not limited to “pure Jazz”; it is much more. True top Jazz musicians, both traditional and New Age, participate, but the Latin, Afro and Caribbean variations are well represented. And now more and more we have R&B, Soca, Reggae and Dancehall and the tremendously popular Creole rhythms of Zouk and Cadence.

Some of the top stars, who have performed at the Festival over the years, include Rihanna, Santana, Amy Winehouse, Hugh Masekela, Dianna Ross, Herbie Hankock, Shaggy, Wyclef Jean, TS Monk, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Luther Vandross, to name just a few.

For the fans it’s all about the music and the non-stop partying; but there is a serious side to “Jazz”. Emma Hippolyte, the island’s Minister of Commerce, is keen to promote investment and involvement by St. Lucians in tourism. She outlined Government’s campaign to develop “Heritage Tourism”. She sees the value of the Festival not only as an all important boost to visitor arrivals and the promotion of Brand St Lucia, but as offering a great opportunity for locals to secure a fuller share of the benefits of tourism.

Fond D’Or

Large crowd at popular venue Fond D’Or. Photo courtesy Lissa Joseph

In addition to the musicians, other St. Lucian artists were able to display their talent; dancers, sculptors like Eudovic, painters like Derek Walcott (yes the Nobel Laureate) and even poets like the renowned Kendal Hippolyte or the upcoming Flora Jesse Leonce, who showed with her feisty poem, “Beauty” that she has “fire in her belly”. Handicraft items were on display, but if anything was sold, I guess that happened when I was not looking.

An innovation this year was the “Hot Couture” side event for Caribbean fashion designers promoted by Paris based St. Lucian fashion consultant Vincent Mc Doom.

It is the full involvement of locals, who have taken ownership of the Jazz festival, which makes it so vibrant whilst preserving its natural feel; something that is key to its continuing success.

But other factors contribute to its uniqueness and attraction. The most obvious is the choice of venues. The mainstage at Pigeon Point where the final weekend’s concerts are held is incomparably picturesque and an ideally suited setting for such an event.  It is actually a tiny island that in centuries past was a military outpost and is now linked to the mainland. The audience relax and picnic on its sloping lawns among ancient ruins with a full view of the stages. From certain sections of the grounds, the mainstage actually seems to be floating on the sea in the background. That is of course just an optical illusion, but the sensation is quite surreal.

Hot Couture by Vincent Mc Doom

“Hot Couture” model by fashion consultant Vincent Mc Doom. Photo courtesy Lissa Joseph

Fond D’Or is another idyllic venue. You get there after driving for miles through the countryside and then taking a short walk to a natural amphitheatre in the middle of the forest … magical! On the first Saturday of the festival, it came to life with the rhythmic sounds of the Paris based Kassav and the rustic but exciting Secret Band.

Other events were held in a varied array of venues, on the beach, in shopping malls, clubs among others. More than half of the concerts were free, including those held in the Square right in the heart of the capital Castries.

Then there is the “wining”! Uninhibited sensual gyration, both on and off stage, are now standard fare at music events in the Caribbean, but at Jazz in St. Lucia it seems to reach new heights of energy and eroticism.

Although fans attend in their thousands, there are no massive crowds or tent cities, the whole festival feels refreshingly intimate and is not overpowering.

The Jazz and Arts Festival, to give it its official title, is different from anything else and certainly is the best in the Caribbean. George Wein, the famous US Jazz promoter and festival organiser, placed the St Lucia Jazz festival in the top three in the world and Grover Washington Jr. proclaimed it to be the best he has attended. Even factoring for some exaggeration, this is quite an endorsement.

Attracting and engaging the top stars, promoting, organising, financing and managing this complex event is a massive logistical feat and quite expensive. According to the Tourist Board, ticket sales cover less than 30% of production costs.

The Government is reported to be contributing US$3 million. This is probably in addition to the substantial administrative and marketing effort undertaken by the state-owned Tourist Board. It is not clear either whether the $3 million includes the value of the duties and taxes waived.

George Wein.

George Wein. Photo courtesy www.nytimes.com

According to Charmaine Gardner, Chairman of the First National Bank, generous corporate sponsorship makes up the difference. She considers that a lot of it is motivated not only by commercial marketing and promotional considerations, but also a desire by many businesses to give something back to the community. She stressed however that such altruism, which does not provide commensurate spin-off commercial befit, whilst most commendable, can hardly be a secure foundation for sustained financing in the long-term.

Malcolm Charles, a business Consultant and writer, said that “for The Jazz and Arts Festival to continue at the successful level it currently enjoys, ‘high end’ (but often expensive) international stars must continue to be featured. To meet this heavy financial burden, the festival needs substantial new money and must become self-financing in the shortest time”.

Charmaine Gardner considers that international TV coverage can provide an important source of revenue and lamented that the US channel BET (Black Entertainment Television) is no longer involved in the way it had been in previous years.

Time Warner’s HBO was present and filming, so maybe this might be the direction in which Festival coverage is headed. UK television was not in evidence though.

St. Lucia has a good thing going with the great music alongside the local culture being showcased, idyllic venues and engaging and fun audiences. The festival is a mammoth and superbly organised undertaking, but to survive long-term it has to be self financing. This is essential since the considerable government support, cannot be expected to continue indefinitely.

The music needs to remain accessible to the fans whilst also offering enough for the pure Jazz aficionados. So far a delicate balance has been struck with the mix of musical genres represented and will have to be preserved over time by sensibly adapting to changing local and international tastes.

Edwin Laurent 18th May 2013

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