To really find out what makes St Lucia tick, visit this October when the island’s Creole heritage will be celebrated all month, says Stan Bishop
There’s something special about the way folk musician Joseph ‘Rameau’ Poleon plays the chords on his old violin that opens up my heart to St Lucia, the island I have called home since 1991. His fixed stare as he reads score sheets seemingly hanging in thin air, and his quiet, humble demeanour when the music stops and the applause starts, are moments that always resonate.
Listening to recordings of Dame Marie Selipha Descartes,the late ‘Queen of Culture’ affectionately known as Sesenne, singing inflective melodies so beautifully makes me think that even the endangered Amazona versicolor – the St Lucian parrot, the island’s national bird – would gladly give up a few feathers to line her royal cap. Even nodding my head or tapping my feet to the pulsating rhythms of the Helen Folk Dancers flowing gracefully through a few rounds of traditional lakonmèt pitjé, moulala, Schottische, widova or kwibich evokes a deep sense of pride in this St Lucian homeboy whose original homeland is Guyana.
Add some other delicious elements to the mix – like a mouthwatering plate of green fig and saltfish, hot bakes and cocoa tea, lambi, conch, souse and some cold sugarcane juice – and I have all I need to celebrate a festival that St Lucians like me look forward to every year: Creole Heritage Month.
Back to our roots
Since 1981, when St Lucia observed Creole Day for the first time, the celebration of the island’s French Creole heritage has increasingly taken on new meaning. So important is the island’s diverse cultural background that there’s now a month-long calendar of activities held every October.
First, a little history. The French were the first to settle in St Lucia. They signed a treaty with the Caribs in 1660 before England gained control of the island between 1663 and 1667. St Lucia was the subject of a long-running war between France and England over the following years, changing hands 14 times before England took definitive control in 1814. St Lucia finally became an independent state in February 1979. Today, St Lucia’s European, African and East Indian roots permeate every stratum of society: food, music, clothing, business, you name it. Unfortunately, it’s a past that’s heavily dependent on the present if it is to last into the future.
Preserving a legacy
Hilary La Force is Executive Director of the Monsignor Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (FRC), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting study into St Lucia’s culture, and exploring the role of that culture in national development. As such, he has been immersed in St Lucia’s traditions for decades. His storytelling in kwéyòl is infectious, and he’s a fervent supporter of many long-standing customs such as the La Rose and La Marguerite flower festivals (held 30 August and 17 October respectively), and the island’s folk dances.
“Our island’s culture has a great deal of significance,” Hilary tells me. “It’s influenced me to the point where I can now speak kwéyòl quite well.”
Everybody has a way of doing things that differentiates them from everybody else, La Force believes. He laments that, though many St Lucians are deeply involved in the cultural aspects of their environment, others do not understand the true bearing that culture has on their lives. That’s why during Creole Heritage Month the FRC invites schoolchildren to its premises where aspects of St Lucian culture are taught, especially the kwéyòl language. It’s both a labour of love and a necessity since many of the island’s traditional ways of life are being lost to modernisation as those who practise and promote them are dying out.
Another unfortunate fact: though the FRC managed to preserve key aspects of the island’s culture for decades, a great deal of that recorded information and many artifacts were lost when FRC’s building at Mount Pleasant was destroyed by fire in March 2018. Most of these items are irreplaceable, but there is some hope: a foreign college has copies of some of the recordings that were lost, and the FRC is now trying to obtain them. Despite that devastating loss, the FRC remains focused on preserving what remains of the island’s cultural legacy. On the first anniversary of the fire, the FRC launched a rebuilding fund and will be hosting various fundraising activities to raise money to rebuild on the original site, with the ruins serving as a symbolic statement.
A month of magic
Last year, a new concept was adopted for the Creole Heritage Month (also known as Arts & Heritage Month): instead of multiple communities hosting the Jounen Kwéyòl festival on the same day, activities will be hosted in communities around the island on the days leading up to the festival, with one venue hosting Jounen Kwéyòl. “The idea behind this is to encourage St Lucians to visit various communities around the country,” La Force says. “There are lots of heritage sites that many St Lucians do not know about, especially in the Soufrière area – New Jerusalem, Tet Paul Trail and the like.”
Celebrated on the last Sunday in October, Jounen Kwéyòl (Creole Day) is a celebration of all things Creole. People dress up in madras outfits and assemble in communities where folk traditions are re-enacted: the sawing of logs, climbing the greasy pole, squeezing sugarcane juice, baking Creole bread, dancing to Creole music and eating and drinking dishes that speak to our French heritage. The FRC is also mulling another major activity at the Sulphur Springs in Soufrière, which should include an early morning Creole breakfast. Other activities on the calendar include WouleLaba (an indigenous form of cricket), a violin festival, a drumming festival, a kwéyòl song competition, Jeness Kwéyòl Competition (featuring young people) and La Wenn Kwéyòl Pageant (featuring senior women).
George ‘Fish’ Alphonse, FRC’s Events Coordinator for Creole Heritage Month, is tasked with ensuring that future generations have an appreciation for St Lucian culture. After spending many years at the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF), where he served as Traditional Arts Officer for the Flower Festivals, he joined the FRC about five years ago.
“The work is a bit easier when you know the culture,” he said about his experience. “If I didn’t know about our culture, I would not be able to function properly. All my life, I’ve been researching our culture, so I know it well enough to package it for others to understand and appreciate.”
The self-described “country boy”, who said he’s been able to absorb much of the island’s culture having lived in various communities, says one of the most significant underpinnings of a people’s culture is its propensity to instill values. He spoke of youth violence – a major concern in St Lucia – which he blames on a lack of such values. “If the youth really understood their culture, they would realise that these killings are not part of it, and that they were born into a culture of love and koudmen [giving a helping hand]. We come from a culture of building and sharing. When you start losing these qualities, you lose your soul,” Alphonse explains.
In the past, there were flower festival groups aplenty. Today, there are only 12 La Rose groups and five La Marguerite groups, a reality that unnerves Alphonse; he says he’s now more determined than ever to work hard to keep our culture alive. “The culture is slowly dying when we’re losing those who practise it,” he says. “But there’s still hope because many young people are expressing interest. Funding, however, remains a major challenge in realising our full potential. Nevertheless, this country is culturally blessed.”
The art of creativity
Lucius Ellevic is a senior manager at the Laborie Credit Union, which is based in St Lucia’s southeast region. Among the union’s objectives is promoting, propagating and preserving the island’s cultural heritage in the furtherance of a better citizenry.
Ellevic’s involvement in the La Rose festival began in 2012, playing the role of Archbishop. He spoke of the stereotyping that still overshadows the flower festivals: that certain people should not be involved in these or other aspects of the culture. He said he got involved deliberately to prove that anybody can and should be involved: “Our culture belongs to all of us,” he says.
“Despite culture being one of the components of the arts, I think sufficient focus is not placed on that aspect of it,” Ellevic adds. “I think there’s an important relationship between typical academia and the arts. The absence of literature and poetry as part of the examination requirements for the English ‘A’ CSEC Exams is unfortunate.”
Ellevic cites the field of management as an area where creativity plays a key role in determining how best to use resources and exceed customers’ needs. Learning of and appreciating one’s cultural identity, he says, enhances one’s abilities in other aspects of life. “Creativity doesn’t come from physics, mathematics and economics – it comes from the arts,” Ellevic notes. “One can actually become a better manager by understanding human behaviour and culture.”
For this year’s Creole Heritage Month, Laborie will continue its focus on the flower festivals to foster greater relationships with young people who might in turn share the island’s culture. This August, the credit union hosted a grand spectacle for the La Rose Festival showcasing different expressions of St Lucian culture. It will also finance arts, including sponsoring the Laborie Steel Pan Orchestra.
Youth on board?
Among the thousands of St Lucians who look forward to celebrating the island’s spirited culture is Analisa Cherubin, a chantwelle (female singer). Born and raised in Monchy in the north, she has been a die-hard La Rose fan ever since she could walk. Her father, who is the president of the Monchy La Rose Group, often took young Analisa and her siblings to the séances where they participated. She was hooked.
“I enjoyed spending time with the musicians and chantwelles, singing, dancing and playing the instruments,” she tells me. “I’ve always dreamed of being a leader of a band or group. From the time I was a little girl, I started learning and singing the songs I used to listen to our chantwelle sing.”
After that chantwelle retired some years ago, members feared that that the group would wind up. Because of her love and passion for the culture, Analisa decided to take up the mantle.
Her sister, Judia, also found interest in the La Rose festival at a young age. Seeing her father dress up in his festival regalia every August to attend the séances excited her; she eventually asked him to take her with him. The festival soon changed her life in a big way.
“I had just left school, and one morning on the day of the festival I was asked to be the queen,” Judia tells me. “I agreed right then and there; 11 years later I’m still queening. The La Rose festival has helped me appreciate our culture tremendously.”
As passionate as Judia is about her cultural heritage, she expresses regret at what she believes is a lack of understanding and appreciation for culture: “I don’t think our culture is being taken seriously. The young people criticise it by saying it’s for old people, but I refuse to let that kind of talk bring me down.”
If you do decide to visit St Lucia this October, be sure to delve a bit deeper into the island’s past and get involved with some of its special traditions.
“St Lucia is not only unique for its natural beauty, but for its hospitable people,” La Force notes. “We speak English and kwéyòl. We’re rich in culture and welcome people from anywhere in the world to learn about it. There’s so much culture we have to offer the world on this little island.”
• 1-30 October – ARTS & HERITAGE FESTIVAL/CREOLE HERITAGE MONTH
Creole Day is now a whole month of music, dance, cuisine, art and other cultural events. Look out for theatrical performances, cultural lectures, culinary experiences, street parties and art exhibitions.
• 17 October – LA MARGUERITE FLOWER FESTIVAL
During the second of St Lucia’s two annual flower festivals, La Marguerite members dress in purple, sing traditional songs and create displays of the magwit (marguerite) flower.
• 27 October – JOUNEN KWÉYÒL (CREOLE DAY)
Observed on the last Sunday in October, this is a unique celebration featuring Creole food, music, games and folklore. People dress in the national costume and journey from village to village to take part in multiple events.