About This Festival
St. Lucia may be a wee, out-of-the-way island, but its annual jazz fest is often cited as one of the world's best. R. Kelly, Diana Ross and Amy Winehouse have headlined over the years, but it's the action-packed line-up of Caribbean musicians that gives the event its distinctive vibe. A hot-fingered Cuban pianist one night gives way to a brass-blowing Dominican zouk band the next eve, followed by a bass-thumping Jamaican reggae group. The festival's other big star is the island itself, whose lush green mountains, elegantly crumbling forts, leafy plantations and palm-dotted beaches provide atmospheric backdrops for the shows.
Performances take place during the day and at night, at sweeping venues and intimate spots, all around St. Lucia. Some shows are indoors, but most happen outdoors to take advantage of the sublime scenery. It's a stop-everything party for locals as well as fellow West Indians from neighboring islands. They comprise the majority of festival goers arm-flailing to the beats, with a healthy dose of US and European fans joining the fun. Yachts pull up next to humble wood boats in the bays, and everyone is limin' (Creole for relaxing or hanging out) for the week.
Besides music, the festival highlights St. Lucia's local arts scene. Painters, wood carvers and jewelry makers display their wares at exhibitions. Performance poets spin words and flowy-skirted quadrille dancers minuet in free shows. Island chefs cook Lucian specialties such as crab back (spicy crabmeat and onion stuffed into a crab shell) and green banana and salt fish for spectators to sample. A fashion show gives the island's fledgling designers their due.
Dozens of venues around the island host shows, and it becomes a carnival-like party as fans travel from one hot spot to the next.
At the outdoor concerts, people unfurl blankets and chat with their neighbors while drinking rum punch from plastic cups. Energetic types bowl up near the stage and join the booty-shaking dance party, but plenty of folks hang back, just listening to the music and socializing. By day the scene is family friendly; it gets more risqué once the sun drops.
The main venues include:
Pigeon Island: The headliners play at this national park on the last Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the festival. Sea-encircled and studded with jungle-covered ruins from an 18th-century fort, it's a helluva place to see a show. Booths scatter around the edges and sell ice-cold Piton beer, tart green-mango juice and meaty snacks like jerk chicken. The park sits at St. Lucia's northwest tip. A short causeway connects it to the mainland.
Rodney Bay: A stone's throw south of Pigeon Island, Rodney Bay has a strip of restaurants and bars that host smaller shows (typically free).
Derek Walcott Square: Located in central Castries (the island's capital), it's the site of the popular, free Jazz on the Square concerts. The musicians who take the stage here may not be the most famous, but they're typically among the most theatrical and draw a good-time crowd. The plaza—ringed by 19th-century, gingerbread-trim buildings—is named for native son Walcott, the poet who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Soufrière: The romantic, French-flaired town of Soufrière is a one-hour drive south of Castries and hosts a series of shows at its bustling waterfront and at the nearby, volcano-side Sulphur Springs.
Balenbouche Estate: Caribbean and Creole rhythms fill the air around the island's rustic southern tip (about 45 minutes beyond Soufrière). The Jazz in the South series offers some of the biggest shows aside from Pigeon Island. This is where you're likely to hear hyperkinetic piano and percussion jams amid rustling calabash trees on an old sugarcane plantation (that'd be Balenbouche Estate in Choiseul) or throbbing reggae on palm-dappled sand (that'd be Rudy John Beach Park in Laborie).
Music Genres and Performers
Although it's branded as a jazz fest, St. Lucia's event piles on calypso, reggae, soca, steel pan, American R&B, European jazz and French-Caribbean zouk. Past headliners have included R. Kelly, the Jacksons, and Tito Puente Jr. in 2013; Diana Ross, Ziggy Marley, and The Gipsy Kings in 2012; John Legend, Maceo Parker, and Angelique Kidjo in 2011; Ne-Yo, Corinne Bailey Rae and Shaggy in 2010; and Amy Winehouse, Patti LaBelle, and Chicago in 2009.
The first St. Lucia Jazz Festival was held in 1992. The tourist board came up with the idea, hoping to fill the down time between the island's peak season (December to April) and hurricane season (June to November). In 2013 the organizers re-branded the event and added fashion, dance, culinary and visual arts to the mix.