Saturday, 4 May 2013

A new Caribbean jazz festival experience - Tobago Jazz weekend 2013

In his Nobel Lecture in 1992, poet Derek Walcott aptly defined the dilemma of Caribbean states as they try to expand their appeal to a global audience:
A culture based on joy is bound to be shallow. Sadly, to sell itself, the Caribbean encourages the delights of mindlessness, of brilliant vacuity, as a place to flee not only winter but that seriousness that comes only out of culture with four seasons.
In the tourism-based economies of the Caribbean, the idea of event tourism and the reality of the numerous “jazz” festivals signify opportunities unfulfilled. On these “empty” isles where the glitter of foreign currency is a necessity for survival, this “brilliant vacuity” masks some harsh realities that a simple “jazz festival” name change won’t fix.

This thing called the jazz festival in the Caribbean is interesting. All About Jazz columnist, Frank A. Matzner stated:
...jazz events have become de rigueur throughout the world of international tourism and the jazz festival concept has blossomed into big business...encouraging new gatherings to pop up on seemingly every strip of sand along the Caribbean chain. Though billed as jazz festivals, the majority of these events—particularly the newer ones—have taken to packing their schedules with everything from pop to R&B in order to attract younger, broader audiences.
—Matzner, Frank A. "Staying Straight: The Third Anguilla Tranquility Jazz Festival." AllAboutJazz.com. 21 December 2005. Retrieved 5 April 2011.

The jazz festival season in the Caribbean, although a year-round happening, heats up on the last week of April with the launch of the Tobago Jazz Experience (TJE). This is followed by the massive St. Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival in the first week of May. Within these two marquee events, exist concerts and shows — unfortunately referred to as fringe — which showcase possibilities that there can be a regional circuit for jazz and other native music genres that would not be dependent of the oft-repeated model of a popular foreign R&B star validated by supporting local talent as a catalyst for new tourist arrivals.

When George Wein created the first outdoor jazz festival in the US in Newport, Rhode Island, it was always about tourism. That festival shares kinship with the Jazz on the Beach hosted by Mt Irvine Beach Club as both were underwritten by wealthy benefactors, certainly in the first 5 years. The TJE merely emulates models of jazz festivals from St. Lucia all the way to Montreux, Switzerland. It makes no excuses that it is the link between commerce and tourism that drives it.

It is anathema to say that one can separate art from commerce at live events, whether soca, jazz or classical music. The challenge of the festival in the mix of events and event tourism is the pull of the foreign tourist as spectator to popular music in paradise versus any obligation to sustain the local creative industries as an economic enabler. In the numbers game, local talent equals filler. Indigenous music is outside the radar of planners when events are outside of Carnival.

Jazz on the Beach re-invented

Jazz on the Beach is a Caribbean jazz purist’s reaction in its founding to the then Plymouth Jazz Festival, which remained outside of the purview of any jazz. Similarly, Pan Trinbago launched its own pan jazz show, Pazzaz as a protest to the non-inclusion of the steelpan in that Plymouth event. The idea of this "jazz and crossover" alternative to the main TJE at Pigeon Point sustains. People are invited to “lie on the beach to relax and partake in mouthwatering culinary offerings.” The settings are the stars of these shows. There is hope though.

Jazz, whether on the Beach, on the Greens, on the Hill or other exotic location, is always about that musical conversation between artistes, and the art of surprise. On the Saturday, in spite of the constant pouring rain as the evening wore on, people danced and sang to the calypsos performed by co-headliner Etienne Charles at the end of his set, and just after that, the pop and reggae music played by Arturo Tappin. Everything else was met with rapturous awe.

Overnight, the stage at Jazz on the Beach was upended by the surge of extreme high tidal waves thus diminishing the final commercial offering on a dry lazy Sunday. In its stead, an under-recognized impromptu jam was announced. These Caribbean musicians, these instrumental extempore experts gave a performance to a gathered few that reinforced what jazz is supposed to be.
Belinda Edmondson in her book Caribbean Middlebrow writes:
The Caribbean jazz festival retains the idea of insider knowledge, but only by association: to be present in the audience suggests that one has an understanding of the language of jazz, even if one does not.
The Caribbean has a culture based on joy, and the delight of the celebration replaced any notion that one had to understand the language of jazz. The fa├žade was established.

A Trini trumpeter, Etienne Charles, and Bajan and Guadeloupian saxophonists, Arturo Tappin and Jacques Schwarz-Bart respectively traded licks over native rhythms provided by “D'Achee” on djembe, Phil Beale on percussion and Panagiotis Andreou on electric bass. Call and response. Improvising on familiar local refrains and a couple standards in a limited space, the music was happening. The audience wasn't, though.


The wet gay abandon of the evening before was replaced by the posture of stoicism. No stage, no cameras, no formalised performance, no joy. The local “tourists” receded to the periphery rather than engage the music without words. The jam was not moving. As people turned a deaf ear to the magic of improvisation by these masters, the sting of Walcott’s words became more real.

To hear the audience say it, “the ambience has gone so there was no point in sticking around.” A DJ serenaded quietly in the aftermath. The promoter reduced the expectation that live music was paramount. The building of a potential jazz audience to support this native music in the realm of a new Caribbean jazz experience was discontinued.

Patrons and artistes are left to consider if the "seriousness" which Walcott speaks about is also real in the Caribbean. The juxtaposition of the destinies of the two complimentary events on the last weekend of TJE points to similar results. The stage at Jazz on the Beach was washed away to reveal an easy jam session of high jazz proportions and minimal commercial impact. At Pigeon Point, Friday's TJE show was delayed for 3 hours by rain invading the stage. On Saturday, rain completely washed out Pazzaz.

The mantra of “the show must go on” was put aside for the convenience of delay and the decisiveness of cancellation to mask under-preparation and poor planning in Tobago on that rainy weekend. A jazz industry and audience deserve better.

© 2013, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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