Vivid hues of blues and greens dominate the landscape of Barbados. But it is the surprising gems that make this island glisten. Beyond the crystal-clear turquoise waters and endless emerald fields of sugar cane, there are blue orchids and green monkeys. And the genuine sweetness comes not from the crop of sugar cane, but from the friendly folks.
While some visitors come here to explore the sounds of soca (soul calypso), tuk or spouge, I am attending the annual Barbados Jazz Festival, where another set of blues take over. Gilbert Rowe, the iconoclastic director, has been running this privately owned, eclectic fest since its inception almost a decade ago. “I started this festival because I was looking for something to do and I had not a dime in my pocket,” says Rowe. He speaks of the outdoor concerts “showcasing the beauty and history of the country.” Then, in a brief moment of inner reflection, he adds, “I want the kids to listen to music that lifts their soul.”
I’m not sure my soul is lifted from this music, but I do enjoy listening to many acts in a tropical climate on sunny winter days. There is the smooth jazz of Dave Sanborn, the avant-garde sonic scats of Rachelle Ferrell (who can sustain a wail as if it is a tape loop), the toe-tapping traditional tunes of Freddie Cole, and the high-energizing rhythms of Hypnofunk, a band led by drummer Sonny Emory. Emory (known for his work with Earth, Wind and Fire) commands everyone’s attention here whether he is playing Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” or shouting, “It’s time to free your soul of hatred.” His work is tinged with an undercurrent of cultural rhythm drawing from salsa, African drumming and Afro-Cuban music.
One of the venues, Farley Hill Park, offers a grassy lawn on a shaded hillside, where audience members bring their own chairs and blankets for concerts stretching throughout the day. The audience spans every conceivable category. As I soak in the sounds, I also survey the hairdos with lots of below-the-waist dreadlocks as well as dreads and braids knotted in exotic patterns.
Curiously, each concert in this festival begins with the audience standing solemnly while listening to a recording of the Barbadian national anthem. I wonder why Americans play the national anthem at sporting events rather than at concerts? Also curiously, the Barbados national anthem is coming from a recording, even when the stage is filled with musicians, including a winning high school band.
The atmosphere is informal at Farley Hill National Park. I chat with Sanborn, who has been coming to Barbados since 1980. He says, “Music is a reflection of geography. I’m an old hippie and I believe we are all one.” Just a beat later he confesses, “I love the people [in Barbados], but coming from New York you tend to be on guard. It takes a couple of days to get over the cynicism. “<
| Travel notes|
Barbados Jazz Festival (annually in January)
Turtle Beach Resort
Sandy Lane Resort and Spa
St. James, Barbados, West Indies
246-444-2001; fax 246-444-2222
Barclays Park Restaurant (funky, authentic and charming)