It is that time of year again when you get to feast on all the roast yam, asham and snow cones you can devour; you can hear the steady rhythmic drumming of Kumina, dinki mini and gerreh and bask in the sights and sounds of authentic maypole, quadrille and other folk dances. Yes, it is Festival time!
This year marks our 55 anniversary of independence and the celebrations planned are said to be hyped with enough variety for seniors right down to those who still suck their fingers. I sought to take a trek down our cultural memory lane when blue draws, ‘Bustmante backbone’ and bandana rule supreme.
Conceived to celebrate the essence of what makes our culture both colourful and creative, Jamaica Festival highlights the best of the best of what is ‘yard’ from Negril to Rocky point and all road side stops in between. The then Minister of Development and Welfare the Hon. Edward Seaga developed a cultural plan of action that would appeal to visitors as well as Jamaicans from all walks of life. Hence from 1963 when it was introduced, festival was embraced as our first cousin and welcomed into our communities, schools and homes. Many of us have fond memories of performing at the regional and then national level, wearing costumes and make-up, reciting and dancing to pieces we practices at nauseum of months until we could do it in our sleep.
Designed to further the development of a fledging nation by providing Jamaicans with a sense of belonging as well as pride, Jamaica Festival was for everyone, belongs to everyone and open to everyone. Not even a disability will have a child on the sideline as there are competitions for the deaf, and ageism was never a factor as senior citizens can often be seen on stage with gyrations and moves that belied their chronological clock.
According to then Minister Seaga, Festival celebration are supposed to ‘mobilise the spirit of the people’ hence in 1968, he formalized the proceedings and establish the Jamaica Festival Commission. In 1980 another bill was passed in parliament converting the Festival Commission into the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC).
Few know however that our rich legacy of cultural celebrations actually began long before our independence and according to the Gleaner archives, our rich legacy of food, art and folk forms harken back to the late 19th century. On record, creative competitions were held at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) which once housed a miniature zoo. In 1897, the IOJ staged an event to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne. There were competitions held islandwide in vocal and instrumental music, art and craft, poetry and performance and even essay writing. Sadly the great 1907 earthquake brought an end to that round of events.
As the nation, particularly Kingston was rebuilt, so too were cultural competitions and all island elocution contests and music festivals were organised, though being under British rule, the contests’ content was decidedly English in nature for the most part. Interestingly records show that in 1910, a young man by the name of Marcus Garvey represented his parish of St. Ann in elocution and won third place.
From 1930 to the 1950s, the island was rife with social upheaval and legislative change as the sons of former slaves demanded more say, the right to vote, better wages, better education and the recognition of their own heritage. Consequently the Jamaica Welfare Limited was established and competitions for art, craft, plays, preserves and traditional dance were held, though many were based in our capital city. That all changed with the introduction of the 1946 Portland Festival which was a week-long event geared at bringing students and adults together at the inter-school and inter-village levels to compete in a variety of themes and genres, thus commencing a movement that quickly caught on like a wild fire, first in St. Catherine, then St. Ann, followed by Manchester. Culture was becoming a recognised commodity.
By the late 1950s, it evolved into island wide fun and frolic that took participants from the parish level to the national finals. Here the soon to be popular Jamaica Bandwagon with its float parade organised by Eric Coverly (husband of our cultural darling Miss Lou) was introduced at parish capitals where grass roots people came out to see the spectacle and enjoy the ‘niceness’ that was for them and done by them. Years later this was incorporated in the initial independence celebrations and early festival.
The passage of time as seen many changes and additions. Today we have a bonafide festival season from June to August, ending after ‘Emanci-pendence’. After the winners are crowned they go on to showcase their skills at the weeklong ‘Best of Festival series’ at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre. Those who earned gold medals perform at ‘Mello-Go-Roun’ in front of audiences who are amazed at the level of talent unearth in this little island. There is Grand Gala celebrations where thirty thousand strong fill the seats of the National Stadium to sing and dance to the very best we have to offer. Added to this are the gospel competition, children’s gospel competition, festival song competition and even a festival queen contest where one lucky girl is crowned as our brightest cultural ambassador.
The Festival Song competition is arguably one that is very special, albeit less so in recent years as some older folks feel its lyrical content has been seriously watered down. Nevertheless who can forget the songs we all love so much that have made artistes such as Heather Grant, Toots Hibberts, Roy Rayon, The Astronauts, Stanley Beckford and Eric Donaldson household names. Indeed we all have a favourite song if not two and people have been known to sit around and debate whether ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, ‘Pomp and Pride’, ‘This is the Land of My Birth’, Give Thank and Praises, ‘Gimme Back Me Sweet Jamaica’, ‘Intensified’, ‘Sweet and Dandy’ or a few others qualify as the best festival song ever. The discussion is never ending as is our national pride.
In recent years the JCDC has sought not only expand their reach but to also spice things up and keep the ‘ting fresh’ hence there is the World Reggae Dance Championship as the significance of reggae and dancehall cannot be ignored. This is arguably the only annual cultural competition ( apart from the long held dancehall queen competition ) where foreigners are allowed to compete alongside Jamaicans for trophies, cash and prizes. Added to this are the Aunty Roachie Festival with short films, storytelling, reading and poetry; the Big Stage Talent Competition; the Dutchie Culinary festival with indigenous dishes and food glorious food plus the Ska Festival where oldies music soothes the soul.
Seeking to highlight the importance of family values, the calendar of events keeps expanding thus the annual festival village has apparently outgrown the lawn of the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre so this year it will be held at the National Arena. For Jamaica 55, the JCDC is asking Jamaicans at home and abroad to embrace their fashion theme for 2017 and “Wear Di Vibes…It’s Jamaica 55”. The theme highlights the vibrancy, resilience, strength and creativity of the Jamaican people through the colours: Black, Emerald, Gold and Red. Jamaicans are encouraged to show off their creativity through fashion, and dress up with pride. What a bam bam indeed!