Sounds of the Spice Isle
The Pure Grenada Music Festival – which celebrates its third episode this April – is introducing the island’s talent to the world, says Jesse Serwer
In Grenada, Mr Killa requires no introduction. The colorful soca star, known for his high-octane live performances and jump-and-wave anthems such as ‘Thunder Rags’ and ‘Rolly Polly’, has been one of the island’s top draws for over a decade. But when the artist born Hollice Mapp took the stage for the closing performance at last May’s Pure Grenada Music Festival, he was entering uncharted waters. During an hour-long presentation, which he dubbed his ‘Fusionistic Evolution’, Killa coursed through numerous genres and moods. A theatrical sequence with actors illustrated Grenada’s history, while on-stage collaborations with young artists Dash and Sabrina Francis pointed towards its future.
“For years I have wanted to do a show like that,” Killa explained to me several months later. “I felt like I could bring forth this vibe I’ve been feeling for years. The Pure Grenada Music Festival gives you an opportunity to express yourself a different way. It is not the regular soca show we normally do.”
Giving Grenadians a chance
Pure Grenada, which returns to Port Louis in St George’s for its third edition this April, is an international music festival with a sharply local focus. In its two years, the festival has hosted performances by British soul queens Estelle and Joss Stone, Beninese world-music icon Angélique Kidjo, and Jamaican reggae stars Tarrus Riley and Queen Ifrica, attracting a mix of local music fans and foreign tourists. But it is sets in which an established Grenadian artist such as Killa can share a new sound, or in which a new one such as Francis can reveal herself to thousands, that best represent the fest’s spirit.
“My motivation is supporting the local musicians,” says Dieter Burkhalter, who co-founded the festival with his wife, Jana Caniga, in 2016. A musician himself, he is also the musical director and keyboardist for Francis’s band, FLOM. “The reason for the festival is really to give Grenadian artists a proper stage, and also bring some light from outside of Grenada. When you bring in a Joss Stone or Angélique Kidjo [to perform], Grenada gets more attention from the music world.”
For Grenada’s government, which markets the event internationally, the festival presents an opportunity to energise the island at a time when tourist visits taper off. “It’s not just a music festival, it’s all about the vibe and culture,” says Francine Stewart, the Grenada Tourism Authority’s director of marketing. “Sustainability plays a big role. The festival is seen as very green. [Last] year, we had kids help us build seats out of recycled car tyres.”
Tobago, St Lucia and St Kitts already hold springtime music festivals that lure both tourists and locals with marquee international acts and established homegrown talent. But the Pure Grenada Music Festival has quickly earned its reputation as an incubator for local music talent that would otherwise go unseen and unheard.
A new tune
Like other islands in the Eastern Caribbean, Grenada’s music industry revolves around the carnival season. Each summer, local soca and calypso artists participate in the ritual of song competitions, angling to have the biggest tune on the road when Spicemas, as Grenada’s carnival is known, climaxes in mid-August.
Grenada is known regionally for its Jab Jab, a form of soca distinguished by thudding, almost tribal drums, gruff chants and the sound of blowing conch shells, often the music’s only melodic element. Jab Jab developed from the island’s J’Ouvert, called Jab Mas (after the oil- and mud-covered devil characters played by revellers during the pre-dawn celebration), and has come to be emblematic of Spicemas. Fuelled by Jab Jab, a handful of artists, notably Mr Killa and Tallpree (who popularised Jab Jab with 1999’s ‘Old Woman Alone’), carry the torch of Grenadian soca to other Caribbean islands, and diaspora cities such as Toronto and New York, year round. But for acts whose musical inclinations lean in other directions, opportunities have been practically non-existent.
“Grenada is a small place,” says Dieter Burkhalter. “There are not that many venues where people pay to hear music.”
Burkhalter, who operated a music school and a live performance venue in his native Switzerland, had hoped to leave the music business behind when he and Caniga left Zurich for Grenada in 2006. That year the couple opened Le Phare Bleu, a boutique hotel and marina complex on Petit Calivigny Bay, along the island’s southern coast. “I was tired of the business side of being in music,” Burkhalter says. “It gets exhausting. But then I met all these talented musicians in Grenada who had no chances to perform on the stage.”
Around the time he bought Le Phare Bleu, Burkhalter also purchased the Västra Banken, a Swedish lightship – a floating lighthouse – which he then had refurbished in Germany and shipped to Petit Calivigny Bay. At first the Västra Banken housed the hotel’s restaurant. But in 2015 Burkhalter decided to turn the maritime relic into Grenada’s most unusual music venue. Today, The Lightship is the only place on the island to hear live music four nights a week, with regular weekly engagements by Sabrina Francis, Keturah George, Tammy Baldeo and the band Soul Deep.
Other promoters had sought to establish an international music festival on the island, but none had succeeded. Burkhalter and Caniga learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. They founded a non-profit organisation, Music and Beyond, to act as the festival’s legal entity, and established a steering committee made up of other stakeholders in Grenada’s tourism and culture industries. The Grenada Tourism Authority threw its support behind the event, with the caveat that it be branded with the agency’s newly adopted slogan, Pure Grenada. “You have to think with at least a three-year plan,” Burkhalter said. “You can’t do a festival and that’s it. From the beginning, it was clear that what we were doing should be compatible with green practices – so we don’t leave garbage behind – and that it should involve the local musicians.”
The inaugural festival was held in six locations over six nights, including a US$400 jazz concert on Calivigny Island, a $25,000-per-night private enclave where Justin Bieber celebrated his 21st birthday. However, the sprawl proved impractical, and Port Louis, a marina complex adjacent to St George’s harbour and the Carenage, was chosen as an ideal setting for a three-night festival. “The location is key,” Burkhalter says. “Grenada is so beautiful. You don’t want to go inside a sports stadium.”
Last year, the festival recorded 6,500 ticket sales over three nights – more than the total recorded over six the previous year. About 105 Grenadian musicians and performers appeared during the festival, Burkhalter estimates, representing about a dozen different genres, from the reggae of Lionpaw and Akeem to the Bryan Adams-like soft rock of Loxton Mitchell. Appearing for the first time since awaking from a coma, Grenada’s nine-time Calypso monarch King Ajamu performed a gospel set backed by a 30-person church choir.
Something will happen…
At the time of press, the lineup for 2018’s Pure Grenada Music Festival was still taking shape. But Burkhalter is particularly jazzed about building on the collaborative spirit. “I invited a music producer from Switzerland, Adrian Stern, to come to Grenada and work with five local singers and nine musicians. He will be here for one week for the festival and rehearsals with the band and singers. Something will happen and something will stay, and that is why I really like these projects.”
Meanwhile, the impact of the festival is being felt year round, on and off the island, by local musicians and international visitors alike. “Within the past two years there has been a rise in live music happening in Grenada,” Sabrina Francis says. “I’ve seen bands rise up out of nowhere. It is slow growth, but it’s happening.” She recently returned from a four-country tour of Europe with FLOM. “There were people who showed up to the events in Europe because they saw me in Grenada at the festival – who travelled five hours to see me perform,” she says.
In Gouyave, on the opposite end of the island from The Lightship and Le Phare Bleu, Mr Killa is ploughing ahead with the construction of a bi-level recording facility he says will be the island’s first international-standard studio. “Enough international artists come here and fall in love with the beauty of the island and the people,” he notes. “The [festival] has been a great opportunity for Grenada to market itself. It builds relationships.”
4 More Festivals
Can’t make the Pure Grenada Music Festival this year? Here are four more events for you to enjoy in Grenada
1 Grenada Invitational, 21 April
Inspired by the success of sprinter Kirani James, the country’s first Olympic Gold medallist, Grenada has added a world-class track meet to its calendar. The inaugural Grenada Invitational in 2017 drew a crowd of 10,000 to Kirani James Stadium for races featuring big names such as Asafa Powell, Justin Gatlin and James himself. “Sports tourism is important to us,” Grenada Tourism Authority’s Stewart says. The event’s proximity to the Pure Grenada Music Festival, meanwhile, is by design, too: “We are going to be seeing how music and sports can bring the island alive.”
2 Carriacou Maroon & String Band Music Festival, 27-29 April
Officially part of Grenada, Carriacou island has its own distinct traditions, and this festival was created in 2010 to highlight its well-preserved Maroon heritage and culture, particularly string bands. The three-day event, held at Belair Heritage Park, Paradise Beach and downtown Hillsborough, also features string bands from neighbouring islands, quadrille dance groups and the cooking of smoked foods.
3 Uncorked Beer & Wine Festival, 29 April
Now in its third year, this one-day event near Grand Anse on the Quarantine Point peninsula showcases wines and beers from more than 20 regional breweries and international vineyards. Top restaurants, chefs and bartenders offer sample menus and product demonstrations.
4 Grenada Chocolate Fest, 11-19 May
One of the Caribbean’s cocoa capitals, Grenada has become a hotspot for organic, small-batch chocolate. What better way to highlight this status than with an event dedicated to its sweetest export? If you thought chocolate was only for eating, think again. Festival programming includes chocolate sunset baths, chocolate massages and even chocolate yoga.