"Two Days of Rain": A Visit to the 2009 St. Lucia Jazz Fest

Classic Arts Features   "Two Days of Rain": A Visit to the 2009 St. Lucia Jazz Fest
 
The St. Lucia Jazz Festival is held on one of the Caribbean's most lush and mountainous islands. This year's lineup included such talents as Amy Winehouse, Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle. Journalist Robert Hilferty reports from the tropical paradise.


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For the past 18 years of the St. Lucia Jazz Festival, which takes place at the beginning of May, it's never rained. When I arrived this year it was pouring so hard that the first concert had to be canceled.

By the second day, the weather improved, and everyone was excited about seeing Amy Winehouse do her thing. Revelers from St. Lucia, nearby islands, the U.K. and U.S. packed Pigeon Island National Park‹which is not really an island but a hilly lawn dotted with tropical trees, to see the bad girl of the U.K.

The tattooed diva came out in her signature retro-beehive doo and a tight dress exposing her gaunt legs. The controversial Grammy winner did everything we wanted her to do under the full moon: took off her shoes, did a shimmy, drank a pint of Guinesss in one fell swoop, flirted with her two black backup dancers, twanged her woes. But by her third song, the storms returned, and the rest of her set was bedraggled with a Woodstock muddiness. Those without umbrellas were drenched, and the lights went off onstage. But the show went on, the lights came back on, and later, Winehouse suddenly left the stage without alerting her band. A good chunk of the audience was not pleased.

The rains stopped as the dramatic Winehouse was followed up by the Paris-based, Guadeloupe-raised group Kassav who took the stage and performed in the energetic "zouk" style as what remained of the sizable audience stomped in the mud.

The good news is that the skies mostly cleared up for the rest of the festival which featured new figures, like the sexy, London-based Estelle, and well-established figures like Chaka Khan (who belted "I'm Every Women" on Mother's Day), Bebe Winans, Patti LaBelle, and Jeffrey Osborne.

As you can surmise, St. Lucia offers more a "jazz-influenced" festival than strictly a "jazz" as it features an overwhelming number of R & B personalities, very popular in the Caribbean. The festival also has a soft spot for legendary old timers from the '70s such as KC & The Sunshine Band ("Shake Your Booty"), Chicago, and Michael McDonald from Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. These guys don't fade away: they're surprisingly vibrant as ever.

The festival's first nine years featured what we would call more serious jazz hardliners, and in the past have showcased such impressive personalities as Anita Baker, Isaac Hayes, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and McCoy Tyner. Dionne Warwick even graced these shores. But as the audiences for sophisticated jazz dwindles, the festival by economic necessity had to open up to the more popular R &B, and also feature some world music personalities.

So I found myself particularly enjoying local jazz figures such as Ronald "Boo" Hinkson, a red-hot guitarist who mixes serious jazz and Calypso. And there's St. Lucian saxophonists Barbara Ann Cadet (who is featured on the most recent edition of the island's phone book) and Luther Francois, who both rock. All these offer the kind of inventive improvisation my ear yearns for that the R & B artists, no matter how dynamic and charismatic, don't offer.

When you're not listening to the music‹which is showcased not only at the sprawling Pigeon park with its many food and drink stands, but other venues throughout the island, such as Derek Walcott Square (named after the island's Nobel Prize-winning author) and the Gaiety Theater (where the more serious jazz artists perform), you can take wonderful excursions to the southern end of the island. By boat or by windy road, you can take in a gorgeous landscape whose magnificence is capped by the Gros Piton and Petit Piton, twin extinct volcanoes (after which a local beer is named) that enchant.

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Robert Hilferty is a critic for Bloomberg news, and writes for Gramophone, The Advocate, and other publications and websites.

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