CARIFESTA IV, 1981: Barbados’ Silent and Forgotten Cultural Legacy

By Ian W. Walcott – November 21, 2012
When a young nation that was about to celebrate only 15 years of Independence decided to undertake its first large regional cultural event, what was to become an emblem of national pride, quickly deteriorated into mishaps, poor planning of huge budget overruns. At the same time, the key stakeholders of this event, the artists, have a totally different view and though they too partake in the code of silence, their present day successes speak the positive legacy of CARIFESTA 1981. This brief essay examines some of the shortcomings and the true legacy of this event.

CARIFESTA IV, 1981: Barbados’ Silent and Forgotten Cultural Legacy
Historical Background to CARIFESTA 1981
The Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts (CARIFESTA) started in 1970i in Guyana as the brainchild of its late leader, Forbes Burnham. The idea was to create a roving arts festival that would bring together Caribbean artists and cultural practitioners to share and exchange in their artistic experiences and expressions while at the same time promoting Caribbean unity. Though these lofty ideals remain intact, the Festival never quite lived up to its expectations primarily due to poor planning, lack of funding and political will. Nonetheless, in spite of its challenges, there is a body of regional artists and cultural activists who struggle to keep the ideal alive. Of all the events to date, 1981 remains etched in the memories of Barbadians as a large nationally hosted event that was both a failure and a success, depending on whose point of view. Let’s imagine Barbados in the year 1981. A mere 15 years of Independence from colonial rule, still grappling with the exercise of nation-building and the pressures of socio-economic and cultural development. For all intents and purposes, as we look back, the nation was immature in many regards: poor management skills, limited infrastructure, weak platform for cultural and artistic expression and we can go on listing all the weaknesses associated with these former colonies in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, following in the footsteps of our bigger neighbors, Guyana in 1972, Jamaica in 1976 and Cuba 1979, Barbados embarked on the ambitious project of hosting the fourth CARIFESTA from July 19th – August 3rd, 1981.

Table 1


Most of the political, administrative and technocratic directorate from this era are now retired or have since passed onii, leaving their own legacies behind.

Source: Cf. Digital Library of the Caribbean -

However, until very recently within the corridors or government, to even mention CARIFESTA 1981 was tantamount to invoking the curse of the oracle unto self and country.

The National Shame of CARIFESTA 1981?
The national code of silence that evolved around this event can be linked to a number of reasons. In the first instance, up to this day, Barbados holds this infamous record of hosting the most expensive of all the CARIFESTA events, having spent US$12 million for the two week event.

Table 2
Source: Dr. Keith Nurse, Reinventing CARIFESTA: A Strategic Plan, 2004, pg. 18



Secondly, there was large scale mismanagement and poor planning which led to several organizational snags, poor program scheduling and cancellations, weak coordination, insufficient accommodation for artists and innumerous complaints from the visiting delegations. iv Thirdly and perhaps most damning, there were the infelicitous allegations that were made, both privately and publicly, of misappropriation of public funds. All of this contributed to the making of a case of poor project management, a national embarrassment, political shame and the ensuing code of silence. To this day, it is very difficult to have an open conversation with those who were closely associated with the management of this project. For an entire generation of policy makers, CARIFESTA therefore became untouchable, unspeakable and unimaginable. To source archives and public documents related to this event is practically impossible. However for the artistic community, CARIFESTA 1981 is the best thing that has ever happened for the arts in Barbados. So how is it that we have such diametrically opposed views and reflections on the same event?

Reclaiming the Cultural Legacy of CARIFESTA 1981
When the Caribbean hosted the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, there was much debate then about the idea of legacy. By this time, more than 25 years had elapsed and CARIFESTA 1981 was a long lost repressed national memory. There was a whole new generation of citizens who knew absolutely nothing of this event. This time around, the political directorate sold the Barbadian public on the potential legacy of the World Cup. The legacy was skillfully used to justify the redevelopment of the cricket stadium to the tune of US$135 million.
“Designed by Dipesh Patel of Arup Associates of United Kingdom and supported by a team of local consultants, Kensington Oval was part of the portfolio which won Arup Associates the prestigious Building Design 2007 Architect of the Year Award in the leisure/Sport category. A team of local contractors led by India’s largest engineering and construction conglomerate, Larsen & Toubro Ltd., worked tirelessly over 20 months to v complete the redevelopment at a cost of $135 million.”

The idea was marketed and presented as one that will bring increased tourism, future sporting events, a dual-purpose venue that will host future culture events and a revitalization of cricket as a national pastime and passion. Unlike this Cricket World Cup, CARIFESTA 1981 had no such spin or political rhetoric associated with it. In 1981, the region was perhaps in its heyday of the integration movement conjoined by efforts of nation-building which was a very important plank of self-determination. We can therefore argue that these are the ideological underpinnings that gave rise to the rich legacy of the CARIFESTA 1981. Legacy, in this regard, refers to a memory and an inheritance that was left behind by a former generation, a historical process or an impactful event. So what is the legacy of CARIFESTA 1981?


Outlining the Legacy
Going forward, we will posit the idea that the legacy of CARIFESTA 1981 can be categorized into three main areas: policy, infrastructure and education and human development. Additionally, there is what we will refer to as a soft legacy which speaks to national pride, nation-building and the packaging of the country’s culture.

Public Policy for the Arts and Culture CARIFESTA 1981 had a great impact on the development of Cultural Policy in Barbados for the simple reason that coming out of this event; the then government instituted the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) whose main remit is the preservation of Barbados’ cultural heritage through its cultural developmental programs. This agency is a statutory corporation that responds to the Minister of Culture through that Ministry which is ultimately responsible for setting the national cultural policy and agenda. Though the country’s cultural policy process was particularly long and drawn out, much credit has to be given to the NCF and the Ministry of Culture for their coordinating roles and democratic methodology which engaged a consultative approach and methodology with the varying publics and The fact that there is such an active agency like the NCF, helps to foment public debate and engagement which ultimately contributes to the development of cultural policy.


Figure 1 – Formulation of Barbados’ Cultural Policy Physical Infrastructure Arguably, most of CARIFESTA’s 1981 budget went to construction of a new physical plant considering the fact that the small young nation had no real infrastructure to host such a relatively large event, by the standards of the day. It was therefore incumbent upon the government to retrofit buildings and even construct a new housing/accommodation village as well as an administrative center for the Festival. This administrative center houses the NCF today and the two main theater spaces that were retrofitted for the event are under the direct responsibility of this agency, namely, the Daphne Joseph Hackett Theatervii and the Queen’s Park Steel Shed. Additionally, some schools were used as performance spaces. Of particular note was the Combermere School which received a major investment in stage equipment. So important was this investment that this high school went on to develop a strong extracurriculum arts program that stimulated many young students to enter into the creative industries. The most notable of these graduates is the world famous Robyn Rihanna Fenty.


See a young Rihanna at 15 years old performing at a school concert at her alma mater, Combermere School which was retrofitted for CARIFESTA 1981. Cf. Source -

Education and Human Development This section can be further sub-divided into three derivatives emanating from CARIFESTA 1981, namely: 1. Community Development 2. Artist Development 3. Audience Development The CARIFESTA experience had to draw its talent from all across Barbados and many communities benefitted from this. Of note was the Pinelands Creative Workshopviii which was heavily influenced by the Yoruba Yard whose director and brainchild, Elombe Mottley, went on to become the first Director of the newly formed NCF. There is no doubt that, upon reflection, the immediate ten-year period after CARIFESTA, 1981-1991, saw a flourishing of the arts in Barbados. This came about for the following reasons: 1. There was now an institutional infrastructure in place that facilitated the development of culture; 2. There was a physical plant of new theaters with modern equipment and artists now had outlets to showcase their work; 3. Out of this then came the corollary audience development, for the citizens of the young nation now had additional sources of culture and entertainment. In terms of education and human development, we saw the emergence of technical companies in lights, sound and production management that would service the new demand for an entertainment sector that was thriving. Even the NCF would go on to develop and enhance its own events and project management skills through its direct management and coordination of the annual summer festival, Crop Over and the National Independence Festival of the Creative Arts (NIFCA). Though there is definite room for improvement, these skills were honed and nurtured as a direct result of the infrastructure that was put in place in 1981.


Soft Legacy
This is perhaps a more difficult area to validate and link to the CARIFESTA experience. Nonetheless, one can safely argue that hosting this relatively large complex project and event so early on in the country’s independence would have contributed to the following: 1. In spite of the controversy surrounding the event/project, the artistic community still speaks with sense of pride, not in only in the capacity of host but CARIFESTA also presented the opportunity to show fellow countrymen that Barbados indeed had a culture that was worthy of being packaged, presented, marketed and sold; 2. CARIFESTA definitely contributed to the process of nation-building especially as it relates to cultural development, cultural policy and community development. 3. In a liberal democracy, public intellectuals and different special interest groups now had a platform for cultural advocacy once the country advanced towards cementing its cultural policy.

Lessons Learnt
There are many lessons to be learnt from the experience of CARIFESTA 1981. However, we must first ask the question whether or not the ten-year legacy 1981-1991 was planned or organic. Evidence suggests that there was a bit of both. For indeed the idea that the infrastructural plant would have served the country well into the future was indeed planned. At the same time, the policymakers of the day could not foresee the mushrooming of the arts and festivals in the country as a result of this catalytic event. It is also clear that going forward the best project management and event management skills would have to be procured to ensure a successful hosting a such an undertaking. Additionally, we strongly believe that the ideal period to have hosted another mega-event like CARIFESTA would have been in 1991, immediately ten years after. The clear evidence that we now have of this positive legacy suggests that a 1991 event would have catapulted the sector into another ten years and we would have been further along in terms of cultural policy and cultural development. Opportunities for the future We put forward the idea that the time is ripe again for Barbados to host another CARIFESTA or similar grand regional cultural event. Certainly as the country approaches 50 years of Independence, there is a higher level of maturity and the knowledge base is a lot more developed. Additionally, there was the experience of hosting the Cricket World Cup. Unfortunately, the region as a whole has missed many opportunities to implement the 2004 CARIFESTA Strategic Plan by Dr. Keith Nurse.ix However, opportunity still abounds for exploiting TV rights, producing mega concerts, earning royalties, international advertising, creating sectoral linkages to tourism, digital marketing making widespread use of the Internet and social media, public and private sector partnerships and implementing the much touted cultural industries strategic plan.x Finally, we take the position that the true value of CARIFESTA 1981 can now be truly felt and quantified. The time has come to reclaim the legacy of this event, learn from the past, lose the fear and the shame, 7|Page

break the silence and have the courage to do it again – only this time around with a much better plan for a less organic legacy.

Cf. Cf. Digital Library of the Caribbean - iii Dr. Keith Nurse, Reinventing CARIFESTA: A Strategic Plan, Prepared for CARICOM SECRETARIAT, Georgetown, Guyana, 2004 iv Cf. v Cf. vi Cf. Barbados Cultural Policy - For methodology, see pp 6-8. vii At the time of writing, this theater is currently decommissioned and finds itself in a sad state of disrepair. viii Cf. ix Cf. x Cf. - POLICY PAPER TO INFORM THE PROPELLING OF BARBADOS’ CREATIVE ECONOMY: A CULTURAL INDUSTRIES DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY, Government of Barbados.


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