Depending on the age group and who you speak with, everyone has a favorite year, a favorite artiste, and favorite night. But for thousands, year one remains an unforgettable experience.
The year was 1996, and as Arrow out of Montserrat, stepped on to the stage on the grounds of the Fort Thomas Hotel, it was evident that the St. Kitts Music Festival would achieve its objective to increase tourist arrivals into the Federation, during the off season.
The first night, Thursday, June 27, was electric. Adrian Lam, Production Chairman put together the perfect mix of artistes, comprising Nu Vybes and Small Axe from St. Kitts, Krosfyah of Barbados, and Trinidad’s Roy Cape Band, featuring Nigel Lewis, that year’s Road March Monarch. A near perfect line up by any standard, which by the end of the night, shattered the ‘docile” label, formerly applied to Kittitians, as thousands of Kittitians, Nevisians and visitors ran around the hotel, as commanded by the pulsating sounds and lyrics of Krosfyah…”Moving to the left, moving to the right…”
Overnight, the Festival was transformed from one of obscurity, to one to “keep an eye on”. The organizing committee was commended for producing a festival that offered great value for money.
In 1996, the ticket price was EC$50, which residents had to be convinced to pay, especially given the “No Re-Entry” policy, and the no seating arrangement. However, these provisions have now become the norm for festivals and major events in the island. Later, the price of the Festival was increased to $65 and eventually to EC$100, where it has remained for several years.
The cost to produce and pay for such an undertaking was an awesome challenge. It was funded by a government overdraft facility of EC$ 450,000 and that first year suffered a loss of approximately EC$ 35,000. The cost could not be met only by Government and the private sector responded to the call for sponsorship, and companies such as National Bank Group of Companies, TDC, Horsford Group of Companies, Carib Brewery, American Airlines/American Eagle, Tropical Shipping, Texaco, American Express, The Cable, SKANTEL (now FLOW), Delisle Walwyn and Company Limited, The Hotel and Tourism Association, Rams Duty Free, Royal St. Kitts Casino, St. Kitts Bottling Company Limited, Barker and Kelly, and Walls Deluxe Record and Bookshop, among others, gave generously to the Festival.
It was recognized very early that success was contingent on aggressive marketing and targeted sponsorship, therefore Val Henry was tasked with the role of Marketing. Other officials included Adrian Lam, Production Chairman, Stanley Franks Logistics and site development, while Glenford “Hambles” Hamilton led the festival as first Chairman. Hilary Wattley, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, represented the Government.
Though the four main concert nights were hosted at the Fort Thomas Hotel, Fortlands, the opening concert, of the five night affair, was held at the Carnival Village on Victoria Road, on Wednesday, 26th June.
The Su Wen – Ching Chinese Ensemble, engaged through the local Embassy of the Republic of China, (Taiwan), was the main attraction. No language barrier was noticeable as they successfully entertained the crowd, closing with thunderous applause from the audience to their performance of “It’s a Small World After All”. The event also included performances by Ellie Matt and the GI’s Brass, and a variety of cultural and folklore groups.
Throughout its early months of existence, The St. Kitts Music Festival was referred to as “The Shak Shak Festival”, named after the shak shaks that blossom on the Poinciana (Cock and Hen) tree during the summer months.
The name was only sparingly used and by year two, The St. Kitts Music Festival was adopted and fine-tuned by the addition of a logo.
The Festival has taken its place as one of the most widely recognized and anticipated events on the St. Kitts Nevis annual calendar. Only one break was ever taken and that was in 2000, when St. Kitts hosted CARIFESTA VII, a regional festival of arts.
Over the years, the Festival has hosted some of the most unforgettable artistes: In 1997, Culture rocked the more than 6,000 party goers on the grounds of the Fort Thomas Hotel. Many would long remember the intoxicating sensuality of Chaka Khan, and the versatile and hypnotizing Arturo Tappin. Gospel music greats Shirley Caesar and The Grace Thrillers wound up the entertainment on Sunday evening. One of the greatest highlights of 1998 was Kool and the Gang who opted to spend the entire week on the island to get a feel for the people.
During the past two decades, Music Festival lovers have also been graced by other first class international performers, such as Maxi Priest, John Legend, Angie and Debbie Winans, Isley Brothers, The Temptations, Air Supply, Sister Sledge, Burning Spear and Damien “Jr Gong” Marley, to name only a few.
Faron Lawrence, who served as Chairman for over ten years, observed that one essential ingredient that has kept the festival alive for the past two decades, is the commitment provided by all serving ministers with responsibility for the festival: Dwyer Astaphan, Jacinth Henry-Martin, Richard Skerritt and now Lindsay Grant. Both Skerritt and Grant once served as volunteers in the early years. Additionally, the former chairman asserts that it has been the financial support of sponsors and the “FREE” service rendered by volunteers that has really allowed the festival to survive.
Founding “Festival Minister” (Dwyer Astaphan), in voicing his sentiments regarding the music festival, stated “We believe we’re on the right track.” He also indicated that “Achieving our goal to expose our people to a higher level of entertainment is one of the festival’s success stories”. In addition, tourism arrivals into the Federation has dramatically increased consistently since the inception of the festival.
These thoughts are affirmed by current Tourism Minister, Lindsay Grant, who also believes that the festival has a unique, but alluring role to play in the development of our the nation’s tourism product, as it meshes well with events driven tourism, incorporating sporting events such as Cricket World Cup and the Caribbean Premier League, CPL.