Saturday night’s kickoff in Market Square ushered in the Carnival season on St. Thomas and gave residents a taste of what organizers promise will be a more fun and streamlined festival, with more events and the resurgence of old traditions that honor the islands’ rich culture.
Speaking with Division of Festivals Director Ian Turnbull, this year’s goal was to create an experience that is more appealing all around, both to residents who’ve said they are ready for a change and to people around the world who he said will be watching the parades, Village performances and shows over social media.
“We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we want to also have a level of excellence associated with our events,” Turnbull said. “For people around the world tuning in, we want them to book a flight for next year and come in because they think it looks better than the experiences they are getting in other destinations. Because really the Virgin Islands, with its ambience and culture, does offer a unique backdrop.”
With one major festival now under its belt, Turnbull added that in looking at how to craft that appeal for St. Thomas, the division is bringing some of the lessons learned from December’s Crucian Christmas Festival and combining it with new partnerships with the media, local nonprofits and businesses that can both enhance the experience and increase its positive exposure. St. Croix’s Festival kickoff – a runway show of troupe costumes – was the result of one such partnership and, according to Turnbull, was both popular and created the hype the division needed to get residents excited about what was coming next.
Soca great Alison Hinds headlined St. Thomas’ kickoff this weekend, along with Spectrum Band, and organizers also used the platform – which drew hundreds into Market Square – to highlight the upcoming Carnival calendar, including the Calypso Monarch and Junior Calypso competitions, which have seen dwindling crowds in the past few years. Parade troupes, J’ouvert troupes and vendors were out in force as well, along with this year’s Carnival Queen and Princess contestants, who Turnbull described as role models to other young women in the community.
“These contestants, they are ambassadors,” Turnbull said. “They are ambassadors of culture to the world, and here at home they are young women who others can look up to. We wanted to increase the level of prestige, quality and excellence of our pageants this year, but we also wanted to make sure to expand the role of our contestants, not just have it as something fleeting or unimportant, where they just show up to the events or on the parade route.”
Bringing back a tradition from the past, Turnbull said the division this year decided to have a coronation for the winners, which he said underscores the ambassadorial role Carnival Queen plays throughout the season, and the next year. The event is scheduled for Sunday, April 19, in Emancipation Garden, a venue that Turnbull also described as an apex of culture on St. Thomas. The Carnival Ambassadorial Pageant, formally known as the Carnival Queen Show, is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center.
Bringing the territory’s culture to the forefront has also been the inspiration for a few new events, such as a set of tramps and workshops that are set up for the Carnival Village opening on Wednesday, April 22.
“The cultural aspect is one of the most important parts of Carnival,” Turnbull said. “Because St. Croix is such a breadbasket of culture, it wasn’t hard to highlight it during the Crucian Christmas Festival. For St. Thomas, what we decided to do was to make the day of the Village opening ‘Cultural Day’ and ‘Cultural Night,’ which will run from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. and include things like costume making and wire bending workshops, and a tramp with Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights, which we are going to make sure are front and center at the Village.”
Meanwhile, a pre-J’ouvert warmup is scheduled from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 25, on the Wilmoth Rhymer Highway. Adding that J’ouvert is one of St. Thomas’ most popular cultural and Carnival traditions, Turnbull said this event is meant to offer something for the entire community, with two bands playing music for both younger and older revelers. There were four J’ouverts on St. Croix this year – something Turnbull said actually happens every year but was brought to light by increased media coverage and promotion of the festival – and Turnbull said residents were adamant about adding another for St. Thomas.
When asked about the parades, which are scheduled for Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2, Turnbull said most of the control overflow and content will be in the hands of the parade marshals, which he hopes will be “cracking the whip” on delays, gaps and vulgarity. Along with making sure the festivities start on time, Turnbull said it is also important to make sure the parades are “friendly” for both families coming out to watch, and viewers over television or online. Once again, partnerships with the media are important, and in an effort to present the best product, Turnbull said, there are also plans to organize activities or shows for the audience when there is down time on the route, or to compensate on livestreams with a slight delay.
“We’re taking stance,” he said. “It is important that people have fun, but we also want to push the envelope in terms of execution and making sure things happen timely. It’s also not up to us to make a judgement on how people should act or what they should wear, but we all know what’s right from what’s wrong, so in terms of what we are putting out there to the world, it is also just a matter of having everyone on their ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’ and staying within those boundaries.
The way the division looks at festivals is that we have to make sure the people of the Virgin Islands have the best experience, that it is worth their time and tax dollars, and also, that we deliver something visitors want to be a part of.”
Schedule updates are online at the Division of Festivals’ website.
Editor’s note: Alison Hinds is a Soca artist not a reggae artist.