The World Creole Music Festival, held annually during the last weekend in October, is set in Dominica’s Windsor Park stadium against a spectacular backdrop of towering mountains that dot the Roseau City landscape, the island’s capital, giving an immediate visual impression of the nature island image that cements Dominica’s position as the nature island of the Caribbean.
Dominica’s World Creole Music Festival (WCMF), billed as three nights of pulsating rhythms, is arguably the premier music festival in the Eastern Caribbean that focuses on the celebration of Creole music. Now in its seventeenth year, the festival has attracted top acts including Kassav, Wyclef Jean, Carimi, Tabou Combo, Buckwheat Zydeco, Machel Montano, Third World and Tito Puente, Jr. among others. It has also featured and recognized internationally acclaimed Dominican performers such as Gordon Henderson and Exile One, Jeff Joseph and Grammacks, Ophelia and Michelle Henderson. Indeed, each year the Festival issues awards to Creole music icons. With this extraordinary line up of performers, the WCMF boasts the widest spread of Creole and related genres in one festival; zouk, konpa, kadans-lypso, bouyon, soukous, zydeco, soca, calypso, reggae, dancehall and salsa. Performers hail from as diverse places as West Africa, France, USA and the Caribbean region from Cuba and Haiti through Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique to Trinidad and Tobago.
The Festival is also set against the backdrop of the world’s greatest celebration of Creole culture; Dominica’s Independence Celebrations. The festival in fact climaxes with Simenn Kwéyòl, Creole Week. Night One coincides with Jounen Kwéyòl Domnik (Dominica’s Creole Day) celebrated on the last Friday in October.
Living the Experience
As the morning sun peeks between the mountains to the east, Roseau, the capital city, becomes transformed into a riot of colour, Creole fashion parades, madras cloth-based decorations with live music by traditional jing ping bands and drumming ensembles at bars, restaurants, commercial banks and sidewalks. Street stalls and stores offer a wide array of Creole fashion and regalia. The scenic Roseau bayfront is abuzz with activity as ferry boats dock at the port to off-load hundreds of festival patrons from the neighbouring islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia. The downtown area and particularly the historic French quarter with its many Creole buildings of the colonial era provide the ideal setting for this Creole Day experience.
Much later, as the sun sets over the Caribbean horizon, city lights emerge like fireflies and Roseau’s nightlife comes alive. The downtown area can be described as one huge festival scene with food stalls and bars serving up the best of Creole cuisine and exotic drinks with sound systems blaring the latest bouyon and konpa hit songs. Festival patrons swarm like bees through the city’s narrow streets and head towards the Windsor Park stadium to be greeted by the sounds of lapo kabwit (goat skin) drumming ensembles pumping up rhythms into a frenzy with the sennsé revellers and moko jumbie stilt walkers providing a carnival-type spectacle.
The opening night of the festival kicks off with the first of the main acts hitting the main stage but not before an opening dance and drumming spectacle by Dominica’s best performers. The main stage itself is a visual experience, an ultra-modern structure, complete with glitter, lights and television screens that project the best of Dominica’s natural attractions and live performances in real time. The latest technologies are all at work here. In between the main acts, local folk dance and music ensembles perform on the main stage thus giving festival patrons an experience of the traditional music that has shaped today’s popular Creole genres. The party goes on till daybreak. This scenario continues over the next two days and nights.
During the daytime, visitors take some time off to unwind by soaking up in the hot water springs and spas such as the ever-popular Screws in the nearby Roseau valley or venturing further inland to do some sightseeing and river bathing. Dominica boasts 365 rivers. All this speaks, or you might rather say sings, to the nature, adventure and culture experience promoted by Dominica’s tourism authority, The Discover Dominica Authority.
The World Creole Music Festival, started in 1997 and was conceived primarily as a cultural tourism product with the objective of increasing visitor arrivals to Dominica during the month of October, in the lead up to Independence celebrations. The planning and staging of the Festival is carried out by the Dominica Festivals Committee (formerly the Dominica Festivals Commission) while general oversight and policy direction are provided by the Discover Dominica Authority (DDA) and the Ministry of Tourism and Legal Affairs.
According to Colin Piper, CEO and Director of the DDA, the WCMF has realised its primary objective of increasing tourism arrivals during October: “Prior to the WCMF the visitor arrivals in October were not in the top tier. Since the staging of the WCMF the visitor arrivals in October have grown to the top three. Moreover, those who come at this time indicate that they would return to Dominica on a more relaxing holiday”.
The overseas French Departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique account for the largest number of visitors. According to Discover Dominica Authority figures, stay over arrivals during the week of the 17th World Creole Music Festival, October 21 – 26, showed that approximately 4,300 visitors arrived in Dominica. This represented 18% growth from 3,635 during the same period in 2012. Over 55% of the visitors arrived via ferry, a strong indication of the French West Indian participation. Trends show that approximately 45% of visitors arriving during the festive season are usually from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Dominicans who reside abroad also account for a significant percentage of stay-over arrivals. For many of them, the festival has become an annual pilgrimage. It affords them an opportunity to socialise with family and friends and enjoy the best of Creole music and culture.
Stimulating the Cultural Industries
Another major objective being pursued by the Festival organisers is the development of the Creole cultural industries especially the Creole music industry. The festival is not only much sought after by bands all over the Creole world but has indeed given a new lease of life to many popular bands including Kassav. The Festival allows for the interaction of musicians from many countries thus encouragng cross fertilisation of music genres. The famous soukous performer, Sakis, from Africa was so inspired by his first experience at the WCMF that he immediately recorded a hit song entitled Dominica.
The Festival also serves as a platform for Dominica’s artistes to project onto the world stage and leads to discovery of new emerging talent. This year’s line-up for example included performances by a number of rising stars. In his address at the Creole Symposium held in Dominica last October 22-24 to mark the 30th Anniversary of International Creole Day, former Vice Chairman of the DFC, Sobers Esprit, pointed out that “the Festival provides an avenue for exposing leading musicians and musical talents in Dominica and across the Creole World, creates an important platform to promote emerging local and regional talent, highlights the rich cultural diversity of the island including its folklore, cuisine, dress/fashion, music culture, exposes the rich tapestry of local videography and creates short-term employment for local artisans and skilled personnel”.
The Festival has stimulated the growth of independent media services, local sound and lights infrastructure and expertise. The Festival has spawned a number of fringe or related events. This includes the Creole in the Park, a daytime music festival sponsored and staged by LIME, one of Dominica’s telecommunications providers, it is held on the four days prior to the WCMF to lengthen the period of entertainment for visitors. There is also Kwéyòl Bòd Lanmè, a festival of music and food running from daybreak on Sunday morning, Day Three of the WCMF. The DFC has also initiated a Jazz & Creole festival on Pentecost Sunday each year.
The World Creole Music Festival has extended its influence beyond its island home. It has inspired the emergence of music festivals in countries where Creole is spoken or where exists a significant Creole diaspora, for example the USA. The Festival has helped to promote the Creole brand and bring to international attention the richness and diversity of Creole music.
Looking to the Future
In the years ahead issues of sustainability and maintaining its unique appeal are the main challenges. The Government of Dominica is the leading sponsor of the Festival and as such provides some level of financial security. The telecommunications company DIGICEL is also a major partner and makes a significant financial contribution to the Festival. Many other local public and private sector bodies continue to support the Festival as they do in fact benefit from the economic spin-offs. Given similar economic spin-offs in neighbouring islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, the DFC has developed strategic partnerships with the ferry services and media institutions there. According to Colin Piper “studies have indicated that for every dollar invested by the Government in the Festival, up to nine dollars is generated. The Festival is in fact meeting one of its mandates; that of stimulating the economy through increased activity and driving foreign exchange earnings as a result of the influx of visitors to the island for the Festival”.
The WCMF is truly an indigenous music festival focusing on Creole music and culture. Set in Dominica, arguably the Creole capital of the world, it offers a unique visitor experience combining nature, adventure and culture. As a celebration of Creole culture, this is an annual pilgrimage that beckons. As preparations begin for next year’s festival, so should you, wherever you are, be making plans to be part of this Creole experience.