7 Caribbean Music Festivals That Get It Right

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A report by Patricia Meschino for Billboard.

Music festivals in the Caribbean are as varied as the islands that host them. From the Love City Country Music Festival presented on St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) to the classical and opera selections showcased at Barbados’ Holders Season, Caribbean festivals are enhanced by their respective islands’ natural attributes, which typically include lush mountains and trade wind-cooled, pristine beaches. With Ja Rule/Billy McFarland’s ill-fated Fyre Festival on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma making headlines for all the wrong reasons, here’s a look at seven music festivals held in the Caribbean that get it right, year after year.

Dominica World Creole Music Festival, Windsor Park, Oct. 27-29, Windsor Park Stadium, Roseau

Inaugurated in 1997, the World Creole Music Festival celebrates French-Caribbean genres including Dominica’s indigenous lilting cadence-lypso and propulsive bouyon, zouk from neighboring Guadeloupe and Martinique and Haitian kompa. Reggae and soca are also prominently featured: Trinidad’s phenomenal soca outfit Kes The Band, Jamaican-American reggae band Morgan Heritage and German reggae star Gentleman appeared in 2016 alongside Akon, Wyclef Jean, Dominica’s legendary first lady of song Ophelia Marie and veteran bouyon band WCK. Direct flights to Dominica are unavailable from the United States but the island is easily accessible through connections in Antigua, Barbados, and Puerto Rico. Don’t expect all-inclusive high-rise seaside resorts that are found in many Caribbean islands: Dominica’s environmentally conscious tourism brand offers smaller rustic hotels and guest houses along with an abundance of rivers, spectacular waterfalls, dense rainforests and mist-wreathed mountain peaks that will redefine the Caribbean experience for many travelers, as will the diversity of sounds heard at the World Creole Music Festival.

Pure Grenada Music Festival, Port St. Louis Lawn, St. George’s, Grenada

The Pure Grenada Music Festival made a great first impression in 2016, due to its seamless production and imaginative use of venues, which included a floating stage in the Carenage Harbor and a cocktail-inclusive jazz concert at the upscale, private Calivigny Island (solely accessible by boat) complementing a diverse roster of acts. Stalwart English reggae band Steel Pulse, African powerhouse vocalist Angelique Kidjo, and English neo-soul singer Joss Stone delivered outstanding sets while lesser known acts, including Canadian alt rock duo Madison Violent, American steel pan virtuoso Andy Narrell, Jamaican reggae artists Etana and Jesse Royal and Grenada’s versatile soca singer Mr Killa made an indelible impression on visitors and locals alike. “We intend to promote Grenadian artists on an international stage and establish Grenada as a music tourism destination,” says Arlene Friday, Festival Coordinator, Head of Marketing and PR.

This year’s festival, held May 5-9 at Port Louis Lawn overlooking picturesque St. George’s Harbor, featured R&B singer Cody Chesnutt, reggae star Tarrus Riley, veteran band Third World and Grenadian steel pan orchestra Pan Wizards. While the inclusion of at least one major international act would encourage visitors’ patronage, there isn’t a more beautiful or relaxed environment to watch previously unknown talents who just might become newfound favorites.

Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest (July 16-22) various venues, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Inaugurated in 1993 when its forerunner, Reggae Sunsplash, vacated Montego Bay, Reggae Sumfest celebrates 25 years of presenting the biggest names in Jamaican reggae and dancehall with an expanded seven-night program this year. Highlights include Sumfest Blitz, a ’90s-themed dancehall bash honoring Kingston’s legendary sound system dances, and Sumfest Heavyweight Clash, with top selectors battling for musical supremacy. The final two nights, July 21-22, held at Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex (an open air field with food, craft and drink vendors) are marathon-length concerts beginning at 9 pm and ending after 7 the following morning. This year’s lineup includes Jamaican dancehall superstar Sean Paul, American-Jamaican R&B/hip-hop artist Sean Kingston, Canadian R&B singer Torey Lanez and Nigerian dancehall luminary Patoranking, veteran Jamaican deejays Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, dancehall’s latest sensation Alkaline, and Sizzla Kalongi, who’ll bring Sumfest 2017 to a blistering conclusion. Warning: headliners often hit the stage after 2 am so plan (your sleep) accordingly and bring a folding chair or a blanket. “An authentic reggae experience where the music was born, lives and breathes can only be had in Jamaica,” contends Joseph Bogdanovich, CEO of (Jamaica’s) Downsound Entertainment who acquired Reggae Sumfest in 2016 from its founders, Summerfest Productions.

Rebel Salute, Jan. 12-13, 2018, Grizzly’s Plantation Cove, Priory St. Ann, Jamaica

Founded in 1994 by Rastafarian sing-jay Tony Rebel (as a celebration of his birthday) the two-night event offers a dusk to mid-morning presentation of approximately 50 artists, inclusive of all Jamaican music forms but emphasizing roots reggae’s positive vibrations. Rebel Salute adheres to Rastafarian principles so alcohol and meat are banned (numerous vegetarian/vegan food options are available) and ganja has been openly celebrated as a healing herb and sold by enterprising strolling vendors, long before Jamaica decriminalized marijuana in 2015. “Over the years the police kind of looked the other way because they understood there will be ganja at a Rastafarian celebration and we have always asked patrons to be respectful of people around them when they are smoking,” comments Tony Rebel, who performs annually at Rebel Salute.

Last year’s event included appearances by ska legends Derrick Morgan and Stranjah Cole, rocksteady great Leroy Sibbles, veteran toasters Sister Nancy and Lone Ranger, dancehall stars Assassin and Popcaan, Rebel’s firebrand protégé Queen Ifrica, and Lady Saw, now administering the gospel as Marion Hall. Like Reggae Sumfest, Rebel Salute’s nightly 12-hour duration requires great stamina and with so many acts on the bill, several sets are cut too short. Observing its silver anniversary in 2018, expect Rebel Salute’s comprehensive artist lineup to be announced soon.

Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, Trelawny Stadium, Jamaica, Winter 2018

Since 1996, the Jamaica Jazz and Blues has presented Alicia Keys, John Legend, Maroon 5, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, in addition to top-tier reggae talents Maxi Priest, Sean Paul, Shaggy and Ziggy Marley. The event’s distinguishing moment arrived in 2012 with a flawless performance by Celine Dion, who transposed her elaborate Las Vegas show within Trelawny stadium and drew approximately 27,000 people. “Celine’s sound designer came to Jamaica and designed a layout for us, there were small stacks of speakers throughout the stadium, generators to power them, and it was perfect, which her team insisted on; Celine’s people thanked us, said how professional we are and it felt great to know we pulled off something like that in a small island,” recalls Walter Elmore, Chairman, Art of Music Productions, presenters of Jazz and Blues who’ve been a part of many music festivals throughout the Caribbean. The expenses associated with acts of Dion’s renown have forced promoters to become more creative in their bookings, says Elmore, who has staged tributes to Johnny Cash and Caribbean music icon Byron Lee and brought bygone favorites including Air Supply, Hall and Oates, Kenny Rogers and Michael Bolton to an extremely receptive Jazz and Blues audience. On hiatus since 2016, the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival is scheduled to for a Winter 2018 return.

St. Kitts Music Festival, June 22-24, Warner Park Stadium, Basseterre

“Every year it’s a balancing act — what combination of acts can we put together that will make international audiences want to come to St. Kitts and also satisfy a local audience? We also look at the various age demographics. Who do young people want to hear? What about mature people and people in between? These are the balances we have to find,” explained Jonel Powell, the Chairman of the St. Kitts Festival Artist Selection Committee. Over the past 21 years the St. Kitts Music Festival has been established as a reliable brand that delivers exciting performances, irrespective of the artists’ genres, in a festive, comfortable atmosphere. In 2016, the festival presented upcoming dancehall star Dexta Daps, Bob Marley’s youngest son Damian, U.S. Virgin Island pop hit makers R. City, Trinidad’s Kes The Band, and rapper 50 Cent, all received with equal fervor. The wide-ranging offerings continue this year with Creedence Clearwater Revisited, rock outfit Goo Goo Dolls, dancehall reggae legend Shabba Ranks and an exhilarating soca band clash between St. Kitts’ own Grand Masters and Small Axe Band.

St. Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival, May 2018, various venues Gros Islet

The multi-genre offerings that characterize so many Caribbean music events began with the St. Lucia Jazz Festival. Inaugurated in May 1992 as a means of attracting tourists to St. Lucia during the low visitor arrival season, the festival steadily integrated R&B, pop and reggae acts into its jazz roster. Soon other islands developed their own festivals and adopted St. Lucia’s prototype. Over the years the festival has featured jazz legends George Benson, Terence Blanchard, Stanley Clarke, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis, plus timeless favorites Jimmy Cliff, The Isley Brothers and Carlos Santana. It generated its biggest headlines (internationally) in 2009 when Amy Winehouse, who lived in St. Lucia for several months, delivered a heartbreaking performance, slurring/forgetting lyrics before abruptly leaving the stage. Celebrating its 26th anniversary in 2017, the festival has scaled back to four days (May 11-14) and returned (primarily) to its jazz roots with Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Kenny Garrett, French Caribbean zouk group Malavoi, Trinidadian soca bard David Rudder alongside steel pan master Andy Narrell, and multi-media star Vanessa Williams. The most recent incarnation of St. Lucia Jazz Festival may not be as broadly appealing as in its 10-day prime but it could bring back the jazz enthusiasts who supported the event at its pioneering outset.

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