- Canada Comes to CARIFESTA: The Caribbean International Festival of the Arts, Trinidad and Tobago, August 2019
For ten days in August 2019, I attended CARIFESTA XIV in Trinidad and Tobago as part of the official Canadian delegation. CARIFESTA (Caribbean Festival of the Arts) is not a typical international festival. It does not involve programmers bringing in hallmark shows from the international touring circuit, thus “bringing the world to the Caribbean,” nor does it curate cutting-edge avant-garde events for art aficionados. Neither programmed nor curated by the organizers, the Caribbean Community, CARIFESTA invites Caribbean countries to bring artists in music, dance, theatre, literature, fashion, crafts, and culinary and other arts, as well as scholars and intellectuals, to a different host nation in each of its now-biennial iterations with the purpose of celebrating, in a broadly popular way, their shared ‘Caribbeanness.’ And while it fully participates in familiar discourses of development, those discourses at CARIFESTA have as much to do with the development of the region’s youth and talent—the festival features a separate Youth Village as well as youth participation in almost every event—as they do financial investment and tourism.
CARIFESTA was founded in 1972 in Guyana, only six years after that country’s independence from Britain. In what Ramaesh Joseph Bhagirat-Rivera called “a grandiose yet necessary undertaking of mental decolonization” (1023), the founding of CARIFESTA
embodied the aspirations of a culturally unified Caribbean grounded in its common African ancestry. Through CARIFESTA, Guyana offered the symbolic and physical space through which to realize the dreams of Caribbean artists and intellectuals to erase Eurocentric cultural prejudices against African-derived cultural forms and embrace a Pan-African cultural heritage that could form the basis of regional unity.(1022)
Twenty-seven years and thirteen festivals later, this description remains one that the festival both adheres to and struggles with. Each festival since 1972 has attempted to integrate the overall goal of inter-Caribbean unification (largely under the flag of Africa) with each host nation’s aspirations to unite its own multiracial and multicultural societies under one national flag. In 2019, CARIFESTA XIV was no exception, but the festival’s unificatory goals were both complicated and advanced by the presence, for only the second time, of a delegation from Canada.
The rhetoric of the politicians who addressed large crowds at the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies in Port of Spain consistently celebrated what Dr. The Honourable Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, called “cultural integration” across Caribbean nations’ cultural and language differences. Trinidad’s acting Prime Minister, the Honourable Colm Imbert, expressed his sadness that “we are still separate states rather than having a single border,” and his hope that “one day, politically and economically, we’ll be identified as one people.” The opening ceremonies, “The Spirit of Wild Oceans,” together with an Indigenous ‘snake ceremony’ on the closing night, posited an imagined creation story for a potentially unified Caribbean nation. There was also considerable emphasis in the speeches on the unification of Caribbean peoples of African, South Asian, East Asian, and (less often) Indigenous heritage, though there was little mention of the descendants of European colonizers. In spite of this aspirational emphasis on a single pan-Caribbean identity, however, each of the nineteen participating countries in 2019 marched (and danced) proudly behind its own national flag in the opening parade and the opening ceremony’s “Parade of Nations”; most were featured in nation-based “Country Nights” or booths throughout the festival; and there were very few collaborative events and, apart from a truly integrative symposium, few direct opportunities for exchange. The festival remained dominated by Afro-derived cultural forms, audiences were overwhelmingly Afro-Caribbean, and the degree to which Caribbeans of other than African heritage felt welcome at the festival was a matter of controversy at the festival symposium. Nevertheless, [End Page 77] there were frequent performances of Indo-Caribbean dance in the showcases and Country Nights of most nations, and there was plenty of ‘Chutney SOCA’1 on offer, including performances by Rikki Jai, Nishard Mayrhoo, and Neval Chatelal in the climactic seven-hour “Super Concert,” which featured...