A report by Patricia Meschino for Billboard. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
The ill-fated Fyre Festival, promoted as a luxury music event in the Bahamas, became a major news story in 2017 for its astounding lack of planning and deceptive advertisements. The Fyre was reignited in October 2018 when festival founder Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years for fraud, and again in Jan. 2019 via the release of Fyre Festival documentaries on Hulu and Netflix. Yet, with such extensive reporting on the callousness that led to the Fyre fiasco, there’s been scant acknowledgement of the anti-Fyre: the Caribbean’s thriving musical festival circuit, which has existed for decades.
A spectacular 2,500-mile island chain, the Caribbean archipelago extends from below the southern tip of Florida to just above the coast of South America. The region’s tropical climate and tranquil beaches, complemented by a vibrant mélange of cultures and indigenous musical styles, have provided spectacular ambience for a wide range of music festivals. Among the earliest was Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash, founded in 1978 (Bob Marley performed there in 1979) as a means of enticing visitors to the island during the slow summer tourism season. Forty-one years later, music festivals are held year-round throughout the Caribbean. Utilizing primarily outdoor locations, from intimate rustic spaces to stadium size venues, country, rock, jazz, blues and hip-hop are heard alongside the region’s own calypso, reggae, dancehall, salsa, soca and reggaetón. If the nightmarish tales of FEMA tents and soggy cheese sandwiches associated with the infamous Bahamian bomb have induced festival fear, it’s time to forget the Fyre and consider 10 of the Caribbean’s best music festivals, listed here in alphabetical order.
Barbados Reggae Festival Bridgetown, Barbados, April 27-30, 2019
It’s not surprising that a reggae festival would succeed on an island outside of its Jamaica birthplace, considering the music’s vast popularity throughout the Caribbean. Now in its 15th year, The Barbados Reggae Festival presents Jamaica’s biggest acts alongside local Barbadian talents. Buju Banton’s Long Walk to Freedom tour (featuring Wayne Wonder and Spragga Benz) makes a stop at the festival on April 27; a beach party features veteran Jamaican sing-jays Sizzla and Busy Signal and an outstanding Vintage Night, attended by all age groups, includes Barrington Levy, George Nooks, Admiral Tibet, and St. Vincent born Judy Boucher. “The stellar lineup together with destination Barbados makes for a very attractive, consistent package,” says Allison Hunte, director/shareholder, Barbados Reggae Festival. “Barbados is just 166 square miles so whether you are coming to relax or to party, we have great resorts, restaurants, surfing, so you can choose how to enjoy the island’s intimate environment.”
Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival, Willemstad, Curaçao August 29-31, 2019
The Caribbean sister festival of Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival, the Curacao event presents artists on three stages: The Sam Cooke mainstage; the seaside situated Sir Duke Stage and the Celia Cruz Stage for jazz and intimate performances. Curacao is one of four constituent nations comprising the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the island’s Dutch charm (the capital Willemstad is referred as the Amsterdam of the Caribbean but English is widely spoken) adds another distinguishing element to the festival. Some of music’s biggest names have performed there including Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, Nile Rodgers, Burt Bacharach, Sting and Shaggy. Maroon 5, reggaetón/trap singer Ozuna, soul legend Gladys Knight and stalwart reggae band Third World will be on this year’s lineup, with additional acts to be announced. Celebrating its ninth anniversary this year, festival organizer Percy Penado says the Curaçao Festival follows a simple formula for success. “We have a mixture of several kinds of music, always big names, it’s very well organized and it takes place on a beautiful island.”
Dominica World Creole Music Festival Roseau, Dominica, October 25-27, 2019
In September 2017, the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that destroyed 90 percent of its buildings, and significant portions of its vegetation, triggered landslides, displaced thousands and warranted the cancellation of the island’s World Creole Music Festival (WCMF). Through extensive rebuilding and generous financial donations, Dominica rebounded and welcomed visitors again in 2018 and The World Creole Music Festival will observe its 21st anniversary in October 2019. Showcasing the music and culture of creole speaking countries in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, the lineup includes superstars within Dominica’s indigenous cadence-lypso and propulsive bouyon music, zouk artists from neighboring Guadeloupe and Martinique and Haitian kompa acts, alongside African soukous, New Orleans’ zydeco as well as marquee dancehall, reggae and soca artists. Renowned for its rugged, fertile terrain, mountainous rainforests and spectacular waterfalls, visiting Dominica provides an unforgettable experience, even for seasoned Caribbean travelers, as does The World Creole Music Festival.
KAABOO Cayman, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, February 15-16, 2019
KAABOO was already an established festival brand in California when it debuted in the Caribbean earlier this year, bringing comedy, culinary excellence and great music to Grand Cayman’s picturesque Seven Mile Beach. A partnership between KAABOO, Ken Dart (Dart Enterprises) and Virgin Produced (Sir Richard Branson), KAABOO Cayman included sets by The Chainsmokers, Duran Duran, Blondie, Salt-N-Pepa and Jason Derulo alongside Jamaican dancehall superstars Shaggy and Sean Paul and UK/Jamaican singer Maxi Priest. KAABOO Cayman’s success makes it the Cayman Islands’ fifth-largest employer, with hotels filled to capacity, welcoming 10,000 guests per day. “KAABOO Cayman offers a personal oasis of indulgences,” comments Jason Felts, chief brand and marketing officer for KAABOO, a word Felts defines as “a feeling of elation that occurs when one has truly escaped, having the time of their life, with likeminded people and great music.” KAABOO Cayman will return in 2020; dates and lineup have not been announced.
Rebel Salute, Grizzly’s Plantation Cove, Priory St. Ann, Jamaica, January 17-18, 2020
Long before medical marijuana was a commonly used term, and decades prior to ganja’s decriminalization in Jamaica, many of the artists performing at Rebel Salute openly advocated for cannabis legalization while championing its healing properties. Public opinion and Jamaican lawmakers have since caught up to that stance: in 2016, Rebel Salute received ganja exempt status from the Jamaican government (meaning marijuana is considered legal at the venue for the event’s duration) and the festival introduced its Herb Curb, a designated smoking area where cannabis products and educational literature are readily available. Founded in 1994 by Rastafarian sing-jay Tony Rebel, the two-night event adheres to Rastafarian tenets (meat and alcohol are prohibited) and offers dusk to mid-morning performance by over 50 artists, inclusive of all Jamaican music forms but emphasizing roots reggae’s positive vibrations. The 2019 lineup included stalwart singer Luciano, veteran harmony trio The Mighty Diamonds and rocksteady legend Leroy Sibbles, alongside Salute promoters Queen Ifrica and Tony Rebel; the 2020 lineup has not yet been announced.
Reggae Sumfest, Montego Bay, Jamaica, July 14-20, 2019
When Reggae Sunsplash vacated its Montego Bay home in 1993, a new reggae festival was created, Reggae Sumfest, and its success quickly surpassed that of its (now defunct) predecessor. In 2016, Sumfest’s future appeared uncertain, at which point American born, Kingston based businessman Josef Bogdanovich, CEO/founder of Downsound Entertainment, purchased the event. Bogdanovich has expanded Sumfest to include social media influencer awards, a music business symposium, an international sound system clash, and two nights of performances by Jamaica’s biggest acts. The 2019 lineup features Rasta roots artists Chronixx, Tarrus Riley, Jah9 and Protoje alongside marquee dancehall names Spice, Elephant Man, Dexta Daps and Spragga Benz and Buju Banton, who fits neatly in both categories. Sumfest has a new presenting sponsor Caribbean Airlines and launches are planned in New York, Miami and London. Says Bogdanovich: “Sumfest delivers a quality production and I intend to establish this Jamaican music festival on an international level that competes with Coachella and Glastonbury.”
Saint Lucia Jazz Festival Produced in Collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, Pigeon Island National Landmark and Various Venues, May 4-12, 2019
Inaugurated in May 1992 as a strictly jazz festival/tourism vehicle, the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival quickly expanded to include pop stars, R&B crooners, soul veterans and reggae legends; Amy Winehouse, who spent a great deal of time on the lush volcanic island a few years before her death, headlined the festival in 2009. Now 28 years old, the festival has returned to its jazz roots with New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) as its presenting partner, hence its amended title. For their initial curation of a major music event in an international locale, JALC has selected many of the finest names in modern American jazz alongside a superb cast of Caribbean collaborators. JALC has also designated five artists in residence for the event: bassist Christian McBride, singer Ledisi, trumpeter Etienne Charles, bassist Russell Hall, and saxophonist/clarinetist Patrick Bartley, each delivering multiple performances throughout the festival. Special events include a jazz cruise, a tribute to Nina Simone with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and an evening with the St. Lucia School of Music, featuring students, alumni, faculty and friends.
St. Kitts Music Festival, Warner Park Stadium, Basseterre, June 26-30, 2019
The St. Kitts Music Festival made international headlines in 2016 when 50 Cent was arrested for using indecent language throughout his performance; however, the event should merit equal attention for consistently delivering a superb lineup of artists representing various genres. The 23-year-old festival kicks off with a sunset welcome reception and concludes with an elegant all white beach party; in between are three concert nights, the first dominated by local and regional soca acts, the second featuring reggae, dancehall and hip hop stars (this year Cocoa Tea, Popcaan and French Montana) and the finale, an eclectic mix of legends (Smokey Robinson), outstanding newcomers (2019 Grammy-winning singer Ella Mai) and Buju Banton, who continues the Caribbean leg of his Long Walk to Freedom tour. St. Kitts is the larger island in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis; the nation’s minister of tourism, the Hon. Lindsay Fitz-Patrick Grant, said in regard to the upcoming festival, “we strive to grow the festival in a way that appeals to local and international audiences, and we are pleased to have a diverse, exciting lineup confirmed for this year.”
Trinidad Carnival, Port of Spain, Trinidad, February 24-25, 2020
Reaching a fever pitch in the days leading up to its raucous, soca-driven street parade of thousands of costumed revelers on Carnival Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), Trinidad’s carnival is akin to several music festivals taking place within a massive, deeply rooted cultural jamboree. The larger island in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidad is the birthplace of calypso, soca and the steel pan and those art forms, especially soca, dominate the festivities. Carnival 2019 offered major concerts by Trinidadian soca superstars Machel Montano and Kes The Band and calypso legend Calypso Rose. All-inclusive parties headlined by the season’s most popular hitmakers and musical competitions abound: Calypsonians vie for the Calypso Monarch title, soca artists face-off in the Soca Monarch contest and 100-member steel bands present complex arrangements of carnival hits in a joyous yet heated skirmish called Panorama. Carnivals dot the Caribbean (and numerous major U.S. cities) and all are patterned on Trinidad’s unrivaled juxtaposition of time-honored traditions and cutting-edge celebrations.
Tmrw.Tday Culture Fest, Negril, Jamaica, April 30-May 5, 2019
Presenting a synthesis of wellness practices, cannabis education, environmental awareness, alongside major name reggae concerts and international DJ sets, Tmrw.Tday has become a much-anticipated event on Jamaica’s music calendar. Founded in 2017 by Toronto based Andrew Christoforou and Kingston’s Kevin Bourke, with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell as the event’s reggae ambassador, Tmrw.Tday is the island’s only festival that spotlights dub, Jamaica’s highly influential art of manipulating a recording and emphasizing its drum and bass. This year, Jamaican dub selector/producer Romaine “Teflon” Arnett and electronic (dub-influenced) DJ Ali “Dubfire” Shirazinia will play a session at Blackwell’s spectacular Negril hotel, The Caves. “Dub has influenced so many genres, we need to push it here in its Jamaica home,” says Bourke. Tmrw.Tday will also include a performance by 2019 Grammy nominee Protoje and his band The Indiggnation at Irie Soul Beach (located in front of the Woodstock Bar and Grill) and a panel discussion examining the roles artists, fans, and music festivals can play as catalysts for societal change. “This is not a festival for thousands of people,” notes Christoforou. “We are happy with having 1,500-2,000 coming for the entire week (with the Saturday night reggae show audience expanding to 5,000) because we want to keep the personal connection.”