Patriotism is high during the Independence celebrations each year. In this 2006 file photo, the Rock Dancers provide a colourful opening for the Prime Minister's Independence Gala at Jamaica House. Krista Henry, Staff Reporter.
In 1963, one man, Edward Seaga, then minister of development and welfare, had a dream to celebrate and develop 'all things Jamaican'. Forty-six years later, the dream has grown into an islandwide celebration impacting all facets of society.
Jamaica Festival, through the work of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), has evolved from celebrating Jamaica, its people's talent and its culture every August, to developing Jamaican culture throughout the island - preserving past cultural retentions and acting as a guiding hand in the country's history.
When The Sunday Gleaner visited the offices of the JCDC on Phoenix Avenue in St Andrew, last Thursday, the office was bustling with a frenzy of activity to put in place last-minute preparations for the week of Jamaica Festival activities that started last Friday and run until Thursday.
A wealth of knowledge Armed with his personal collection of articles relating to Jamaica Festival and the JCDC since the 1960s, Hugh Nash, chairman of the JCDC board of management and advisor on culture and community development to the Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture, Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, is a flesh and blood history book written on festival and culture. In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Nash outlined the beginnings of Jamaica Festival, its evolution and development throughout the years and plans for the future.
Talking about the growth of Jamaica Festival goes hand in hand with the development of the JCDC as Nash explained, "Jamaica gained Independence in 1962 and what is now the JCDC emerged out of a process that began in 1963 to create a 'Jamaica Festival' for the annual celebration of Independence". Equipped with a small staff in each parish, as well as a slew of volunteers, and from the onset targeting the school system, the JCDC took on the huge task of unifying Jamaica's culture that was formed from many.
In an article written by Dr Rebecca Tortello in The Gleaner on July 16, 2002, titled 'The History of Jamaica Festival: What a Bam Bam!', Tortello described Seaga's memories of the 1962 Independence festival celebrations which he helped coordinate and which laid the groundwork for the real start of festival as we know it today. The first celebration, Seaga said, was aimed at commemorating a substantial achievement with the excitement and enthusiasm it deserved, saying there was a need for, "something to mobilise the spirit of the people".
The first festival celebration after Independence was an islandwide phenomenon, according to Nash, which climaxed on the first Monday of August, which was then regarded as Independence day up until 1997. "Jamaica Festival began with a concentration on drama, art music, dance, speech, photography, visual and literary arts, some of which were carried in specialised small festivals before Independence," Nash said.
"These were all expanded and carried from villages, zones, parishes to the national arena. Culinary arts became a feature to encourage a creative development of a national dish. Religious thanksgiving services, military parades, sports, street parades, fishermen regattas, concerts and more were added to provide something for everyone with the constant theme being 'things Jamaican'."
It was through a well-strategised plan known as the 'Five Year Independence Plan (1963-1968)' developed by Seaga that chartered the course of Jamaica Festival to its present state. The plan emphasised that Jamaica Festival would be focused on Jamaican content, creation, workmanship and performances, and would act as an annual report on the creativity of the nation. The plan states, "the festival is conceived as an annual report to the nation on all its phases of national achievement."
Futuristic elements Nash pointed out that one of the futuristic elements of the plan was its emphasis on tourism. Jamaica, at the time, was not a tourist Mecca, receiving the majority of its overseas clientele in the winter. One of the major changes due to the plan's outlook, Nash said, was the change in cuisine in local restaurants from foreign to local dishes. The vision was for Jamaica Festival to be an attraction for tourists, a vision Nash believes has not been achieved.
"Jamaica Festival still has not achieved the level of development to make it an attractive international summer festival, but the present office (of the JCDC) is working to make that come true," he said. Nash explained that the timing of festival during the summer linked it to efforts to stimulate travel to the island among non-Jamaicans and Jamaicans living abroad.
Festival development Before reaching its current planning phases of making Jamaica Festival an overseas attraction, a number of developments throughout the years has lead to what people will see climax on August 6. The first major element added along the road to development, according to Nash, was in 1964 with the first Festival Parade.
This was a grand gala that was staged at the National Stadium, and featured the first coronation of 'Miss Jamaica' - before it was taken over by private entities in 1975. The inaugural Miss Jamaica was Mitsy Constantine, who became Seaga's first wife.
The next development was the start of the Festival Song Competition in 1966, which Toots and the Maytals took home with What A Bam Bam. In the late '60s, festival fashion took prominence throughout the years and is even seen today with this year's fashion theme being the national colours of black, green and gold. In the late '60s, a strong emphasis was placed on traditional folk forms and then on contemporary forms of ska and reggae.
In 1975, the Miss Jamaica contest became the Miss Jamaica Festival Queen Competition which was based more on cultural awareness than on beauty. In the 1980s, the gospel song competition was added. Also the '80s saw one of the biggest changes yet, when the National Festival of the Arts separated from the Independence Festival.
"The National Festival of the Arts had its own identity and focused on music and dance while Jamaica Festival continued in Independence time and was a mix of the best from each festival," Nash explained. "This meant all year round work on these art forms with heavy concentration from September to July on syllabus, seminars, workshops and competitions at parish regions to national."
This shift showed that the work of the JCDC and the goal of keeping culture alive would be consistent throughout the year. By 1997 another big change took place when the Emancipation Day holiday was established as August 1 - pushing Independence Day farther back on the calendar of holidays.
"The celebration of Independence Day which was fixed for the first Monday in August was changed to the actual Independence Day of August 6, so now we had two significant holidays, the first and sixth," said Nash. "Consequently, since that year, Jamaica Festival is fixed for a seven-day period from midnight July 31 to August 6. On July 31 in every parish, an Emancipation vigil is kept as the start of the festival."
Major development The last major development occurred with the formation of National Heritage Week, which culminated on Heroes' Day in October. While the JCDC gives a forum for the various ethnic retentions that comprise Jamaica's eclectic culture, it is the JCDC's sister agencies - the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and the Institute of Jamaica - that authenticate and research the validity of the various retentions. In essence, the entities work together to supply all the cultural areas and even extends to the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show, which allows focus to be placed on much wider pursuits.
Now with most objectives well on the way, the JCDC and Jamaica Festival have to be concerned with adjusting to societal changes. Nash explained that emphasis is now placed on staff training in the art forms, cultural administration and related disciplines to better satisfy the demand and sustenance of the tradition of voluntary services. Training also includes events planning, community development and technology. There is also a focus on creating more opportunities for private sector involvement through sponsorship of projects.
Throughout the years, Nash has witnessed many changes, but believes the JCDC and festival have come along way. "The quality has improved as well as the number of participants each year. The presentation of the festival, how it is staged and the audience has increased," Nash said. The audience, too, does not only include family, and friends of festival participants, but a wide number of persons who come to embrace their culture. Nash added, "the JCDC in each parish penetrates very deeply, not just in the schools, but out in the communities."
Evolution of Festival The evolution of festival, Nash feels, is very encouraging. The next step now is taking Festival and Jamaican culture to the international stage. "We are very encouraged by the emergence of specialised festivals. The two outstanding international ones being Jamaica Jazz and Blues and Reggae Sumfest, as well as many specialised local festivals," Nash said. "Still, we're on the route to developing a unique Jamaica Festival with the whole island as the stage, and we must go forward now to make this an international festival for Jamaicans overseas to come home and celebrate, and to invite their overseas friends."
The dream has come a long way and for that one man, Edward Seaga, it has earned him a special seat of honour at all festival events - which he still attends on a regular basis. In her article, Dr Tortello asked Seaga to reflect on the development of festival. He said he believed festival has lived up to his expectations of "maintaining, preserving and developing our cultural resources and having opened the doors for young people around the country in all fields of creativity and given them a means of expression".