This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of Caribbean Beat magazine as “A return to Island jazz.”
The COVID-19 pandemic over the last three years wreaked havoc on island tourism and decimated the live music industry worldwide. A nexus for live music and tourism in the islands is the enduring island jazz festival, set for a reintroduction, a rebound and a reset in 2023.
In the Spring 1993 issue of Caribbean Beat, writer BC Pires noted that there are “more than 30 jazz festivalse very year in the Caribbean and most Caribbean people have never been to one … And there is a good reason for this: most people in the Caribbean don’t really need jazz — they’ve got perfectly good music of their own, thank you.”
However, 30 years beyond Pires’ declaration, perpetual in-the-red economics, ageing demographics, and changing tastes have diminished the faddish-ness of the island jazz fest as a dreamed-of getaway — whittling down the “more than 30 jazz festivals” to fewer than a dozen.
While a few island tourist boards and culture ministries still hold fast to the belief that the island jazz festival is an important magnet for tourists in low season, the remaining festivals have evolved to redefine those destinations by looking inwards.
Notably, the jazz festival in the Caribbean has never been the same as the jazz festival in North America or Europe. For the fortunate traveller to and among the islands, the experience is a unique one. And the first step in understanding that experience is the artist and his/her music — those Caribbean artists who are defining the sound of jazz in the Caribbean and from the Caribbean, and positioning themselves and their music to be the new magnets for the masses.
Both Trotman and Hinkson, along with St Lucian Teddyson John and Barbadians Nicholas Brancker and Arturo Tappin, represent one modern identity of Caribbean jazz: a tropical crossover/easy-listening sonic profile on many recordings, which serves as a jumping-off point for visitors to those festivals.
Individually, these artists have positioned their music to be palatable to a wide cross-section of music lovers who are eschewing improvisational excess for reframed island vibes.
“[T]hey’ve got perfectly good music of their own, thank you” is becoming the new way of reframing destination music festivals.
Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana all offer similar yet unique island jazz experiences from September to November that define Francophone Caribbean native music — zouk, cadance, bélé, gwo ka, biguine — through the lens of jazz improvisation and fusion.
This trend is paralleled in Trinidad with its series of one-day mini-festivals beginning one month after its mammoth Carnival through the final weekend in May — Jazz Artists on the Greens (25 March); I AM Jazz (9 April); North Coast Jazz (27 May), and more — that all benefit from a stable of local musicians continuing their exploration and evolution of kaisojazz (calypso jazz) and steelpan jazz.
Determined resilience is an apt description for the ethos of this festival, while another would be contented nationalism. Haitian musicians and their music, which celebrates konpa and kreyòl and juxtaposes jazz with jubilation, are a main part of the programming of the festival. The Haitian diaspora was showcased to a global streaming audience. Montreal-born woodwind specialist Jowee Omicil, whose music is wildly described as having “a cosmopolitan sense of groove and injected with hints of voodoo blues”, was planned to appear in the 2023 edition.
Beyond poverty and politics, real and imagined, a sense of dignified originality reigns in these two island jazz festivals.
Of course, the next step to appreciating the recovering island jazz festivals is being there. With the lifting of travel restrictions and opening of island borders, visitors and regional travellers are on the move again. Caribbean Airlines boasts direct connections to any island with a jazz festival from hubs in the Caribbean and North America, and island-hopping flights and ferries serve to fill in the gaps.
Optimum tourism and travel are still hampered by high prices brought on by increasing fuel costs, immovable and significant taxes on travel into and between islands, and by other man-made obstacles. Flying into Cuba from some countries is an expensive political act. Nevertheless, exploring myriad spaces and navigating labyrinthine routes to experience Caribbean jazz is still worth it.
Being there — hearing and experiencing the music and festival vibe — is a spirited complement to the typical sun, sand, and sea island adventure. St Lucian Derek Walcott’s absurdist inference from his Nobel Lecture — “[a] culture based on joy is bound to be shallow” — is upended by the recognition and curation of the new island jazz festival experience in the Caribbean, which takes into consideration the Creole context, the vernacular expression, and the melodies, rhythms and languages of the region.
What these festivals show is that beyond defining the destinations, there has been a growth of nascent music industries and the development of a cohort of native musicians whose careers have taken on a global perspective since the pandemic began.
It’s not a contradiction nor an incongruity to suggest that island jazz festivals are world class. They are reflections of the music and artists that makes island cultures resilient, important and impressive.
© 2023, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.