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The History of Jamaica Festival
What a bam bam!

Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
Riots Here: Send Help At Once
A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
Jamaican Coffee - A beverage of distinction
Jamaican Rum - A kill-devil of a drink
Jamaica Festival - What a Bam Bam
Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
Lewis Hutchinson: The Mad Master
A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

Claude McKay: Jamaica's First Poet Laureate
Frazier versus Foreman on the Sunshine Island 1973
The Magical Spiderman: Anancy
The Case Of The Shark Papers
Katherine Dunham - Matriarch of Modern Dance
Money - The Roots of Jamaican Currency
Simon Bolivar: El Liberatador
Old Time Tellin's: A Closer Look At Jamaican Proverbs
Recollections of World War II
Place Names - A Window to Jamaica's History & Character: Wnat's In A Name?
The History Of Spanish Town
A Cultural Explication Of Empire: Lady Nugent's Journal
The History Of Falmouth: Boom Town Of The 19th Century
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists- Prof. Louis Grant 1913 - 1993 Part I
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists-Part II
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Chinese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Lebanese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Indians
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Irish
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
Colourful Characters - Jamaican Birds
The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
Old-time Jamaican weddings
In this place dwelt Horatio Nelson
Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
The history of the Salvation Army in Jamaica CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
Somewhere beyond the sea
A fascination with football
Jamaican Horse racing History
A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
A Time to Die Death rituals
Deadly superstitions

Feedback To the Series

"I have found your articles on the Pieces of the Past most entertaining and interesting to read. For me as a historian these pieces come at a time when Jamaicans need to reconnect themselves with their past and the Gleaner's efforts through this medium is quite commendable.

I have found especially today's article on the 1780 hurricane to be quite of interest to me as I am currently involved in bringing to light the role of natural disasters in the development of Jamaica's history, culture, society, economy and politics and the article on the "Hurricane of 1780" has greatly aided in this direction. Keep up the good work and I look forward to more interesting and historically significant pieces from this series." - Kerry-Ann

The First 500 years in Jamaica

We're taking you for a stroll down memory lane for the next six months. Along this journey,we will relive several events which
significantly impacted on the social, political and economic development of Jamaica. As we travel share your experience with us...

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Pieces of the Past,
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Two women dance 'bruckins' to the enjoyment of onlookers.

JAMAICA FESTIVAL ­ a national salute to local talent and ingenuity ­ in local vernacular ­ "a bam bam." How appropriate that the phrase introduced to the nation in 1966 by Toots and the Maytals in their winning festival song, can be used to aptly describe Jamaica Festival itself. A major training opportunity for thousands of Jamaicans, Jamaica Festival's mandate was (and still is) to focus attention on "Things Jamaican" ­ Jamaican creativity and cultural awareness across socio-economic levels. As Edward Seaga, then JLP Minister of Development and Welfare, spelled out in his Long-term Development Plan for Jamaica (1963-8), festival was integral to national development because it was a way of giving Jamaicans a sense of who we are, and what our history and culture is all about. These concerns took on added importance during that immediate post-Independence period.

Seaga remembers 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, as being aimed at commemorating a substantial achievement with the excitement and enthusiasm it deserved. Unlike other countries where the sheer achievement of independence was itself an occasion for joyous celebration, marked by a specific day, Jamaica's independence was achieved gradually and a convenient day near to Emancipation Day was chosen (the first Monday in August) to mark Independence. There was therefore a need he said, for "something to mobilize the spirit of the people". That something became Jamaica Festival, the first of which was really held in 1963, on the anniversary of the previous year's Independence celebrations. Festival has since been staged every succeeding year without fail. Although popular support for it has varied at times over the past 4 decades, it has nevertheless become part of the formal Jamaican development landscape ­ a visible and tangible expression of the vitality and range of Jamaican culture and creativity.

In a 1968 presentation to the House, Seaga sought to institutionalise and formalise festival proceedings by proposing to establish the Jamaica Festival Commission. The Act was passed unanimously. In 1980 another Bill was passed in Parliament making The Festival Commission the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), the name by which it is known today, and a name well suited to its work which by then had become entwined with cultural development. Today, the JCDC is also responsible for organizing aspects of the country's annual independence celebrations.


Jamaica has a long track record of creative arts competitions. One of the first known was staged by the Institute of Jamaica in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's 60th year on the throne. Competitions were held annually in vocal and instrumental music, handicraft, poetry, architecture, essay writing and natural history research until 1907 when the earthquake intervened. In the early part of the 20th century, all-island elocution contests and music festivals coupled with the tradition of eisteddfod (i.e., local gatherings of music competitions) organised by Mico, the Jesuits at St. George's College, the Music Society of Jamaica and the Poetry League became popular. The year 1910 is worth special note as it marked the introduction of a young Jamaican named Marcus Garvey who represented his parish of St. Ann in elocution, placing third overall. In general these contests were judged by Englishmen and contained a decidedly English aesthetic.

In the 1930s, a decade of significant social upheaval and change on the island, Jamaica Welfare Ltd. was established and village competitions that included art, craft, plays, preserves and traditional dance, began. In addition, Mico graduates, exposed to music and art forms, took that influence with them as they began their teaching assignments around the island, contributing to the growth of a national art form. Yet, in spite of claims to be representative of the entire island, these contests remained largely Kingston-based until the 1946 Portland Festival. This week-long event, a spontaneous effort organized by local citizens that included bringing schools and adults together to allow for eliminations at the inter-school and inter-village levels, marked the beginning of a movement. St. Catherine followed suit in 1949, St. Ann in 1951 and Manchester in 1954.

In 1955, the movement evolved to include celebrations that were not only islandwide but year-long. For the first time parish level competitions led up to national competitions with national finals held in Kingston. The popular three-hour long Jamaica Bandwagon with its float parade organised by Eric Coverly was introduced. Co-ordinated by arts stalwart Robert Verity and presented in all parish capitals, the bandwagon took popular entertainment to the people at street corners and in the villages. Bennett helped organise arts celebrations in 1960 and 1962 as part of the Independence Festival, and went on to be awarded the Order of Distinction in 1977 for his outstanding contributions in the field of Jamaican theatre. By the early 1960s, however, no central organisational structure to ensure the repetition, growth and increasing Jamaicanisation of such events was yet in place.

That development came in 1963, when following the success of the Independence Festival, such an overall organisation was introduced. A small unit known as the Festival Office was established in the Ministry of Development and Welfare under Seaga's leadership, and in 1964, Hugh Nash, a man whose name would become synonymous with Jamaica Festival over the years, was appointed director. Nash held that post from 1964-67, in 1969, from 1974-77 and 1981-83. In 1983 he, too, was awarded the Order of Dis-tinction for his contributions to the development of festival.

When asked to reflect on the development of festival, Nash vividly recalls the enthusiasm of the thousands of volunteers and the non-partisan nature of their involvement. Each parish was divided into Festival Zones with a committee for each zone charged with encouraging entries in dance, music, speech and the culinary arts. (It wasn't until 1966 that the popular festival song competition was added).

An important administrative strategy that began in the early years was the annual national evaluation seminar that took place in September each year to highlight what worked and what needed improvement. Nash recalls these sessions as full of creative energy, with cultural activists like Rex Nettleford and Dr. Joyce Robinson and himself sitting for hours with Mr. Seaga (sometimes on the floor surrounded by papers), throwing out idea after idea.

Nash explained that the timing of festival during the summer linked it naturally to efforts to stimulate travel to the island amongst non-Jamaicans and Jamaicans living abroad. It also nicely coincided with the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show which festival performers and queens often attended to add a cultural element to the proceedings.

When asked to reflect on the development of festival, Seaga feels that festival has in many ways lived up to his dream of "maintaining, preserving and developing our cultural resources, the unique natural, creative talents which belong to our people, having opened the doors for young people around the country in all fields of creativity and given them a means of expression."


Participants in the festival dance competition

In the 40 years since its inception, thousands of Jamaicans have benefited from Jamaica Festival programmes. The Festival Commission and now the JCDC has exposed and nurtured the talents of renowned cultural artistes as Bob Marley, Mervyn Morris, Kapo, David Boxer, Barrington Watson, Lennie Little-White, Stephen "Cat" Coore, Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Fae Ellington and Susan Alexander.

Today, the JCDC falls under the auspices of the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development. The administrative structure still maintains a large volunteer-base particularly at the parish level where a JCDC officer is appointed to oversee activities. Total JCDC staff numbers over 100 and includes National Youth Service (NYS) members and holiday workers.

Current programmes reap the benefit of the early Festival movement's attempt to establish a comprehensive presentation of all the arts imaginable, from the graphic to the culinary, to the performance and the literary. As a result, they can now be called traditional festival events. These include Art and Photography, Craft, Literary Arts, the National Mento Band competition, Dances, Speech (in standard and Jamaican English), Drama, Music, the National Festival Song and Gospel Song competitions as well as the Miss Jamaica Festival Queen Contest.

The best of the Festival of the Performing Arts (dance, speech, drama and music) is showcased in the JCDC's annual Mello Go Roun' which this year will be staged in Montego Bay in addition to Kingston. The JCDC also presents an annual exposition of art, craft, traditional music, dance, games and food at the National Mento Yard.

Current Executive Director, Marcia Hextall, the fifth female to hold that post, is excited at the activities planned for this special 40th year, particularly the float parade ­ an event that last took place in the 1980s. The parade of 19 floats, 10 costume groups and 12 effigies will begin at Devon House on Independence Day and end up at the National Stadium. Also new this year is the 'Festival Train' a road show set to travel across the island from Sunday, July 28 to Friday, August 2 stopping at 30 locations, featuring the finalists in many of the competitions. Parishes will have at least one matinee and one night event. Another key event is the 'Oldies Festival Song Showcase' to be held in Morant Bay and Montego Bay featuring the songs from the first 10 years ­ Toots and the Maytals will headline. Additional highlights of this year's independence celebrations include the 'Grand Send-off' on Sunday, July 28 in Morant Bay and the final "Ol' Time Independence Street Dance" in Half-Way Tree on Wednesday, July 31.

Forty years later, what has now become a traditional report to the nation continues.

*Special thanks to Hugh Nash, O.D., for his assistance with this piece.
Sources: Ffrench, J. (1974). "Festival Flashback." The Daily News, p. 6-7. The Sunday Gleaner, August 4, 1974, "Festival ­ an Exciting Challenge", JCDC (1988), Festival's 25th Anniversary Supplement. Kingston: JCDC, Sherlock, P. and Bennett, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, Seaga, E. (1963). Five-Year Development Plan., House of Representatives (1968). 1968 Jamaica Hansard, Proceedings of the House of Representative, Session 1968-69. Kingston, Jamaica: Author. Jamaica Cultural Development Commission.www.jcdc.org.jm.

Rebecca Tortello

Coming August 12:

The series explores Captivated Sir Hans Sloane And His Passion For Jamaica

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted July16, 2002
Copyright 2001-2 . Produced by Go-Jamaica.com