Reflections on CARIFESTA + 4 Tips for Making the Most of Your Experience

When we think about the things that bring the Caribbean together, we often talk about West Indies cricket, the University of the West Indies and CSME. Rarely do we mention CARIFESTA.

Granted, it’s not a permanent institution like the others on the list and its staging has been somewhat sporadic since it started in 1972.  However, since 2013, it takes place in a different Caribbean country every two years and it is an amazing celebration of Caribbean-ness. It’s a simultaneous display of regional unity and diversity and that alone makes it beautiful.

Initially, this blog post was simply going to be a guide to CARIFESTA for those who want to attend in years to come. But then I started thinking about the environment in which the event takes place and how in some ways, it can feel like a mirage in the desert. We come together to recognize and celebrate artistic expression in all its forms then we go our separate ways and the petty (and political) rivalries kick up again.

So, with that in mind, this post is a mix of things – like a Caribbean cook-up if you will.  I’m going to talk briefly about what CARIFESTA is then I’ll expand more on why I think it’s so important. After that, I’ll share my tips for having an enjoyable festival. CARIFESTA 2021 will be in Antigua and Barbuda so you’ll have lots of time to prepare!

So, What is CARIFESTA?

The first Caribbean Festival of Arts was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1952 and it seems this got the ball rolling. Artists who attended the 1966 Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention in Georgetown, Guyana raised the idea of hosting a similar event.

Later, in 1970 during Guyana’s Independence and Republic celebrations, another call was made for a festival focused on the arts of the region. This time, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham was swayed and CARIFESTA was staged in Guyana in 1972.

More than 1 000 artistes from over 30 Caribbean and South American countries took part, showcasing music, dance, drama, folk art, painting, sculpture, photography, and literature.

Today, the delegates are drawn from the 15 CARICOM Member States and five Associate Member States as well as the Caribbean diaspora in the US, Canada, UK and Europe.

What to Expect When You Attend CARIFESTA

The Grand Market is at the heart of CARIFESTA. It’s where you’ll be able to purchase goods from artisans across the Caribbean. You’ll find food, clothing, shoes, skincare products, craft, books … basically anything made in the Caribbean. The Grand Market is also where the Country Nights take place.

Every night three or four countries showcase their culture through the performing arts. You can also expect stage performances and street theatre during the day. Essentially, you can show up at the Grand Market at any time and just take in whatever is going on. You’re guaranteed to discover something you like!

Although a lot takes place at the Grand Market, there’s also a lot happening elsewhere. You’ll find food, fashion, visual arts, music, film, theatre and literary arts events at various locations and in several communities in the host country. No matter where you live or decide to stay, something should be close to you.

Caribbean people naturally love to have a good time. However, if your interest in Caribbean culture is also academic, the CARIFESTA Symposium is for you. Just keep an eye out for the call for submissions.

Why You Should Attend CARIFESTA

Now, here’s why I think you should attend CARIFESTA when it comes to your country or if you can, travel to the host country. You’ve probably heard this before but there is truly more that unites us than separates us. And in areas where we are different, there are lessons to be learned or simply a new dish to discover or a genre of music to fall in love with.

It was interesting how when people heard the Bajan accent, they wanted to share their experience of Barbados. How they visited on as a child, how they still go every year or which beach is their favourite.

True story: Regardless of what is happening at the political level, we have been crossing the borders of Caribbean territories for decades for business, recreation, and love and we will continue to do so.  In the absence of a single economy and affordable inter-island transport, Caribbean citizens have been connecting. When we travel for cricket, carnival or CARIFESTA, we form natural bonds.

Perhaps Black Stalin made this point better than I can back in 1979.

The Federation done dead and Carifta going to bed
But the cult of the Rastafarian spreading through the Caribbean
It have Rastas now in Grenada, it have Rastas now in St. Lucia
But to run Carifta, yes, you getting pressure
If the Rastafari movement spreading and Carifta dying slow
Then is something them Rastas on, that them politicians don’t know

This is in line with something I observe: we naturally form links at the grassroots level. The challenge is to make a strong enough case that our leaders have no choice but to act at the political and economic levels. We largely share a common history. Our current challenges are quite similar, and our destinies are intertwined. This is not only evident in our politics and economics but also the cultural expression which emerges from our political and economic realities.

Those are my thoughts on the deeper level but let’s get back to the surface and talk about how to enjoy your CARIFESTA experience.

3 Ways to Make the Most out of CARIFESTA

I first attended CARIFESTA in 2017 in Barbados and I enjoyed myself so much that I decided I had to be at the 2019 staging in Trinidad and Tobago. I’m not a CARIFESTA veteran but I think I’ve learned a thing or two so here goes:

Stay Near to the Grand Market if You’re Visiting

Like I said before, this is the hub of the festival and you’ll want to go back. There may be something you want to attend day after day. For me, it was the fashion shows, but you may want to take in spoken word or return to the vendor who had the best food you’ve ever tasted. If you’re in walking distance or a short ride away, it’ll be a lot easier to get your fix.

Be Flexible. Things May Not Go According to Plan

Based on my two CARIFESTA experience, I think I can comfortably say there will be hiccups. Events which you had to pay for at first may become free. You may rush to get tickets then realize you don’t need them or you may have your heart set on an event and then realize tickets were really limited. You may see one thing posted on social media and hear something else at the venue.

These issues absolutely should be ironed out by the organisers but if you don’t want to raise your pressure or end up disappointed, take it as it comes. Plan around the events you really want to attend but have a backup plan or be open to trying something you didn’t think about doing before. This leads me to my next point.

Step Out Your Comfort Zone

Get to know the islands of the Caribbean through their creatives.

Most CARIFESTA events are free so you have nothing to lose by attending an event which you aren’t quite sure is your cup of tea. Listen to an author read an excerpt from their book even if you’re not particularly passionate about Caribbean literature. Head to a visual arts exhibition even if you don’t normally do so. Get familiar with the musicians from a country you’re not very familiar with. I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy everything but  you’ll definitely learn something and gain new perspectives.

Use the Opportunity to Explore the City

Giraffes at Emperor Valley Zoo

CARIFESTA is a full experience in and of itself but if you’re visiting another country, make sure you see some of it. While I was in Port-of-Spain, I took the opportunity to view the permanent display at the National Museum and Art Gallery just before I viewed the CARIFESTA art exhibit which was held there. I also visited The Emperor Valley Zoo and National Botanical Gardens and did some shopping and browsing on Frederick Street and Charlotte Street. Even if you don’t have the time or money for real touristy things, just wandering around can be cool.

 This is much longer than I planned but I hope it’s helpful! If you have any questions at all about CARIFESTA, feel free to drop them in the comments and I’ll try to help you out.

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