By Edwin Laurent
St Lucia’s 2013 Jazz festival came to a spectacular climax on Sunday 12 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, David Rudder, Akon and Tito Puente Jr, along with top local musicians such as Luther Francois and many more.
Also on the main stage 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.
The Festival, though, is not limited to pure jazz; it is much more than that.
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, Diana Ross, Herbie Hancock, Shaggy, Wyclef Jean, TS Monk, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and 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, as well as developing what she calls “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.
In addition to the musicians, other St Lucian artists were able to display their talent: dancers, sculptors such as Eudovic, painters such as Derek Walcott (yes, the Nobel Laureate) and even poets, such as 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 McDoom.
Thanks to the full involvement of the locals, who have taken ownership of the Jazz festival, this vibrant event has managed to keep the natural feel 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 main stage 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 main stage 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.
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 variety of venues: on the beach, in shopping malls and in 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 gyrations, both on and off stage, are now standard fare at music events in the Caribbean, but at Jazz in St Lucia, they seem 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, not overpowering at all.
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, while 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 country’s Tourist Board, ticket sales cover less than 30% of production costs.
The government is reported to be contributing US$3m, probably in addition to the substantial administrative and marketing effort undertaken by the state-owned Tourist Board.
It is not clear, either, whether that $3m includes the value of the duties and taxes waived.
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 stresses, however, that without commensurate spin-off commercial benefit, this kind of altruism, commendable as it is, can hardly be a secure foundation for sustained financing in the long term.
Malcolm Charles, a business executive and writer, considers that for Jazz to continue to be successful, top but 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 possible time," he said.
Charmaine Gardner told Caribbean Intelligence that international TV coverage can provide an important source of revenue and laments 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 this might be the direction in which coverage of the festival is headed.
UK television was not in evidence, though.
St Lucia has a good thing going here, with a combination of great music, local culture and picturesque venues, as well as engaged and fun audiences.
The festival is a mammoth and superbly organised undertaking. But to survive long-term, it has to pay for itself, since the government’s considerable support cannot be expected to continue indefinitely.
The music needs to remain accessible to the fans, while also offering enough for the pure jazz aficionados.
So far, a delicate balance has been struck with the mix of musical genres represented. But the event will have to preserve that balance over time by sensibly adapting to changing local and international tastes.