Making music in St. Kitts
by Jessica Pook | 29 August 2019
I’m trying my best to get out of a girl's Facetime video when I overhear her say excitedly, “I can see him in the queue - he’s getting on the same plane as me!” My interest piqued, I crane my neck to see a group of girls taking pictures with Davido. Admittedly, I’ve never heard of the Nigerian singer before, but if the buzz he creates at Gatwick is a sign of things to come then the St. Kitts Music Festival promises big things.
Now in its 23rd year, the annual festival has established itself as one of the most diverse music events in the Caribbean, showcasing local island talent and regional genres like reggae, soca, calypso and jazz, as well as music legends such as Goo Goo Dolls, 50 Cent, Patti LaBelle, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson and French Montana.
“The festival has been ambitious and bold with its artists over the years,” says Racquel Brown, CEO of St. Kitts Tourism. “It’s enabled us to reinvent ourselves and has helped to put St. Kitts on the map. The mix of genres and artists means we now compete with some of the biggest festivals in the world.”
Nestled between Anguilla and Montserrat, tiny St. Kitts is still relatively unknown compared to other Caribbean destinations, but the music festival is providing a positive boost for visitor numbers, with the island welcoming 11,000 festival goers last year, both from the region and international.
The first night’s acts are all local artists from St. Kitts and neighbouring islands and I’m immediately in awe of the only woman in the line-up, Nadia Batson from Trinidad, she’s fierce and sassy and her soca-inspired songs are full of energy and female empowerment.
I befriend a couple in the crowd who tell me they travel from the UK to the festival every year because they enjoy the variety that it brings. “It’s not like other festivals where you get pushed and shoved," they say. "Here everyone is a bit more laid back and you get a real mix of Caribbean music and international acts. There really is something for everyone.”
Just as they say this, a familiar London accent calls out from the stage - it’s Grammy award winner Ella Mai, who performs her hit songs ‘Boo’d Up’ and ‘Trip’. Her enthusiasm at being in St. Kitts shines through and backstage she tells me why she feels so connected to this region of the world.
“Despite my grandparents being from Jamaica, I’ve only had the pleasure of visiting the Caribbean twice,” admits Ella. “I’m desperate to spend more time in this beautiful part of the world and the St. Kitts Music Festival proved a great opportunity for me to do so and to reach a different crowd. It’s an honour to be here.”
Headline acts Smokey Robinson, Cocoa Tea and French Montana put on a great show but it's Buju Banton, one of the most significant and well-regarded artists in Jamaican music, who steals the show. In one of his first performances since serving eight years in a US prison for drug charges, the Jamaican finishes the set with a poignant number that really seems to resonate with the crowd - the whole venue erupts and the atmosphere is electric.
Aside from the music, the other element that excited me was the food. I couldn’t leave the island without trying some authentic Caribbean cooking.
It may not look like much from the outside but El Fredos, a family-run restaurant, serves home-cooked traditional Caribbean dishes including fish stews and goat curry. It’s lunchtime on a Monday and packed with locals. I order the red snapper and I'm not disappointed with the towering plate that’s put infront of me which includes plaintain, potatoes, a whole fish and rice. This is comfort eating at its best.
For something a tad more upmarket, Marshalls offers fine dining with a view of the ocean and Rock Lobster serves beautifully-presented dishes in a chic beachside setting.
We also have a taste of the high life at the Fisherman's Village, Park Hyatt as we sit in hammock chairs overlooking the ocean and enjoy delicate dishes that are both flavoursome and 'Instagrammable'.
Each villa at the Park Hyatt features a private plunge pool with an ocean view looking towards sister island Nevis, oozing luxury and exclusivity. There's no doubt that I'm in celeb territory now.
Before leaving the island we stop off for lunch at a roadside shack named Ital Creations. The tiny kitchen has joined the vegan movement but has taken it one step further, in that all the ingredients are grown on-site, and by that I mean in the family garden.
I take the opportunity to browse the organic farm and pass banana trees, mango trees, sweet pea pods and Moringa trees. My subsequent lunch is the picture of health and bursting with fresh and colourful ingredients that all live by Ital's mantra 'Let your food be your medicine'.
I leave St. Kitts with a full stomach and a somewhat more eclectic playlist, and wonder why this island hasn't yet been overwhelmed with tourists like its siblings Barbados and Jamaica. But that's part of its charm and I hope it never changes.
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