SVG - A Cultural Overview

By Anthony Theobalds

Culture is best thought of as the sum of practices maintained by a people reflecting their way of life; which includes traditions, beliefs, entertainments, dress, and language.It is both the “Things they do” and "How they do them".National Identity is closely bound with Culture since a person’s national identity is in part a by-product of their Culture.It should be remembered that Culture is a dynamic concept since the “way of life” for a group is always subject to changes.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines the history of the country has produced a marvellous heritage of Amerindian strength of spirit, fused with European governance, to which we add African inventiveness, complemented by Asia’s resilience philosophy.

At this time a number of festivals give vision and voice to the myriad influences that shape our culture today.The festivals cover different areas of interest such as sailing, dance, music, traditional celebrations, and other such things.The national calendar of activities has some activity in every month.Of special note are March for celebration of National Heroes, A Gospel Festival in April, Carnival in July, October sees us celebrating Independence; and in December there is a Christmas festival, that is unique to St. Vincent & the Grenadines, called Nine-Mornings.Our Carnival is called Vincy Mas and is considered second only to Trinidad & Tobago.It gives opportunity for expression of artistic talent in carnival costume, steel band, calypso, soca and various other forms of entertainment.

Food is another element of culture and the country developed from an agro base.One of the most recently developed festivals is in celebration of the Breadfruit.Traditionally, it was a major food staple for the poor;however, its stature has grown to the point where now it is on every plate, when ever possible.Of course, the adoption during the 1950's of breadfruit and jackfish as the national dish certainly helped.

Of note in the National Identity of Vincentians is that we are characterised as friendly and hospitable to all who visit our islands.All the elements of our culture are easily felt and experienced by visitors.But it is interesting to realise that most Vincentians by so constantly living their pattern do not have a consciousness of their culture.Of course it is a matter that we note that the people who visit us have an accent when they speak while we do not.

The Cultural Calendar reflects a heightened focus on performance arts and culture with a festival or event in almost every month of the year.

January

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Blues Fest
March

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Heritage Month/Heroes Month
April

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Gospel Fest & Easter Regatta
May

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Maroon & Arrowroot Festivity
June/ July

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Carnival
August

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Emancipation Month
September

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Dance focus (Showcase or Festival alternately)
October

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Independence Celebration activities
November

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Drama Festival
December

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Nine Mornings/Christmas lighting activities

January - Blues Fest

From gospel came the blues and a century later to the Grenadines came the Mustique Blues Festival. No sadness in these two weeks of exciting energetic performances by world renowned musicians hosted by blues diva, Dana Gillespie, in the congenial atmosphere of Basil’s Bar, Mustique. Like its host island, the festival can be full of surprises; are there stars in the audience who will join those on stage?From Mustique the festival travels to St. Vincent via Bequia, where only the waters are blue.

March - Heritage/Heroes Month

We learn, we remember, and during Heroes and Heritage month in March, we ponder the distant past. We honour our heroes and in cultural events and Indigenous People’s Day celebrations, we breathe life into the almost-lost traditions and tongues of a people here long before colonial wars, long before Columbus. For St. Vincent is the homeland, Yurimia the seat of the Garifuna Empire, this festival, at time of homecoming and pilgrimage, a time to reflect upon mysteries far beyond memory’s reach.

April - Gospel Fest & Easter Regatta

Gospel Fest

While Calypso is Carnival’s beat, Gospel music once was a story too, of a people’s faith amidst adversity. Today it is the joyful sound of choral voices raised in praises across the land. Past and present are honoured in April’s Gospel Music Festival, with zone competitions, a weekend concert at Kingstown’s Peace Memorial Hall, featuring international artistes and an awards ceremony.

 

Easter Regatta

We turn for the Regatta excitement to Bequia at Easter. Here in the Northern Grenadines our heritage is the sea, and on Bequia, 100 years ago, the work of a Scottish boat builder and a French whaler-man helped shape the “double-ender” sailing boats and the islands’ unique culture. Today, these boats are the highlight of Regatta and bring islanders out in the hundreds for racing, cheering and bay side partying. Other cultural traditions are remembered in the package of shore events, including the flag dance and folks songs, presented by the Canouan Regatta. On Bequia, witness and wonder how boat building evolves, as international yachts compete and the island’s fleet of 6-ft model boats battle in deep water.

May - Maroon & Arrowroot Festivity

Maroon Festivity

While people of the lush St. Vincent hillsides celebrate harvest, Easterval festivities on Union Island originate in rituals to call forth rain. For here we celebrate the legends and legacy of another unique culture - the Maroons. Within the Caribbean revelry of this Easter event is the costumes and dancing, songs of Africa and the famous Big Drum Dance unique to the outhern Grenadines.

Arrowroot Festival

Our roots are in the land too, and we celebrate its bounty with song, dance and feasting in the Arrowroot Festival in northern St. Vincent in May. More than a harvest festival, this event reminds us of our earliest history, for the crop has likely been cultivated here for over 2,000 years.

June/ July - Carnival

From the first firecracker of New Year’s morning to the last dance of old Year’s night, St. Vincent and the Grenadines celebrates the vitality of this young nation and honours a sacred past with a year-round programme of visitor-friendly festival events. Our diverse histories become alive in dance and drama, storytelling, sport and song. We learn we wonder, we fete.

As only a Caribbean people can, we do all these things in the mas and magic of Carnival. In the many rural events and the midsummer splendor of Vincy Mas, Carnival celebrates a heritage of revelry, royalty and music. When steel pan orchestras play we hear the Caribbean’s unique music not yet 100 years old. The verses of our storytellers, the Calypsonians, reflect upon the soul of the nation today, our ills and dreams and aspirations; but from what history came their rhythm that’s Carnival’s heartbeat? Out of which pasts dance the mischief making characters of old Mas- the jab jabs, pierrots and jumbies, the boosey back, robbers and bats? We dance to calypso’s beat in the raw energy of the new Soca music, which carries a flag-waiving, jumping-up youth into a new Caribbean age, and we crown our own royalty-Soca Monarch, Calypso Monarch, Miss Carnival, the Prince and Princess and the King and Queen of the Mas Bands. As audience, or band member, we share the exhilaration and rapture of Mardi Gras when thousands of bejeweled masqueraders parade the street. We are all royalty for a day and we celebrate ourselves.

August - Emancipation Month

We celebrate the status of all as free individuals during Emancipation Month, in August. This is a festival not of laughter, but of learning, of remembrance and tribute to ancestors who travelled the Middle Passage. In cultural performances, lectures and exhibitions we learn about those who became enslaved and how all became free.

September - Dance Festival

We sing, we drum, and in dance discover more of ourselves. The National Dance Festival of event throughout September showcases traditional and modern works including African and contemporary Caribbean dance.

October - Independence Celebration activities

We look to the future; we look to the past and the diverse journeys we have taken today. October is Independence Month and in the parades of the 27th we celebrate our journey to full status as a free and independent nation in 1979.

November - Drama Festival

In November’s National Drama Festival, school, and community theatre groups give further insights into our society with a series of one act plays. Through the eyes of our performance artist we look to the future.

December - Nine Mornings/Christmas lighting activities

We remember, we reflect, and with song and laughter it is December’s National Christmas Festival- and we fete. Special events including the National exhibition lead to Nine Mornings - a festival unique to St. Vincent and the Grenadines - when communities throughout the country are ablaze with lights, music fills the air and from the first night of each of the nine days before Christmas, revelry takes to the street. In Kingstown are concerts, street dances, fun competitions and storytelling. The National Carolling Contest is a highlight.