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Welcome to Festival

Why Do We Jump Up?

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty.
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly.

—"Redemption Song" by Bob Marley

On the eve of the eve of August Monday, several things will take place. Shoppers will crowd local markets, cooks will “slave” over hot stoves, nail technicians will be booked, nightclubs will be jumping, and the streets of Tortola will be blazing hot with throngs of people partying to the hottest calypso, soca or fungi beat.

This partying and dancing will continue into the wee hours of Monday, around five o’clock to be more precise, when the morning ushers in Rise and Shine or J’ouvert as it’s commonly called throughout the Caribbean (this word comes from a combination of the French words for day and open: jour and ouvert). Does Rise and Shine deliberately coincide with the early rise of slaves heading to the plantation, or does it signify an early morning jubilee for paying homage to the dead? As the reason continues to be explored, this festivity is nevertheless a time for celebration. It’s an annual moment for locals, tourists and artists to whine and thrust their throbbing bodies in wild excitement through Tortola’s modern streets, several hours before the highlight of a mile-long parade.

 

August Festival for many people will mean nothing more than a time for drinking, partying and vacationing. Yet, for those individuals whose ancestors built the BVI, and for those who are enlivened through culture and historical facts, August Festival holds something deeper.

Unlike the cargo ships we often see in present day, carrying sleek automobiles, fancy home appliances and imported furnishings, the cargo ships of the 1800s brought Africans. Whole societies and communities of Africans were dropped as far south as Brazil, and sprinkled like candy along the way to North America, into the waiting chains of European slave masters including those on Tortola.

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A population consisting of 1,184 planters and 6,121 slaves worked these vast hills and volcanic mountains to provide wealth and comfort for their owners. That’s equivalent to nearly one fourth of the current population.

Slavery was an abhorrent occurrence, and in the BVI it was as brutal as it gets. But, when it finally came to an end, freed slaves burst onto the streets in righteous jubilation and for several days and nights, those who were once silenced and restricted from practising their native traditions were finally able to open their artistic, musical and religious tombs.

There is a purpose behind every event during Festival from the colourful floats and coordinated dance troupes, to the organized pageants and ghostly Moko Jumbies.

 

Anyone who’s attended Festival will tell you it’s a pulsating experience. Large trucks equipped with bulky speakers slowly cascade along the parade route, each one carrying a select group of people with costumes marking their identity. They could be political figures, pageant winners, family members, friends and musical acts. Participation from all walks of life is welcome, but early writings show that each band and their followers represented a different society, clan or location on the island.

Fungi music, a staple of sound within the BVI was created by slaves who worked the sugar plantations. Not only did it serve as a communication tool for uplifting their souls, but the dialect or patois within fungi music often held messages concealed from the master.

BVIslanders celebrated emancipation in the early 1900s primarily through church services, sports and picnics. The role of the church was integral in instilling worship and empowerment. However, the community eventually followed in the footsteps of other islands and these gatherings transitioned into a street fête.

Moko Jumbies also played a significant role as they represented the protectors of the village. Unrealistically tall, via stilts, these entertainers are said to be a representation of the ancestral spirits in Africa who kept an eye on impending danger to villagers.

Beauty pageants and the selection of a BVI queen or Miss BVI are directly connected to the Queen of England’s own ceremonial crowning and the glamour and allure that it brought to the Territory.

Emancipated
Although slavery existed until 1838 for the majority of islands, slavery in the British Virgin Islands ended four years prior; nearly two centuries after it commenced. On the first Monday in August 1834, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the public in front of the Sunday Morning Well in Road Town. The Well was said to represent a meeting place for people to gather strength from one another. Even now, members of the public use it to rap thoughts, raise awareness, chat with political figureheads and key business and decision makers on the important matters affecting this country.

In the coming weeks, there will be hordes of budding girls and young women spending hours in a beautician’s chair. They’ll patiently wait while the stylist manoevres their hair into the latest coiffure – perhaps a popular ponytail, but most likely something braided, twisted and gelled. On the flip side of the gender coin, burgeoning boys and dapper young men will spend equal time in the barbershop to acquire a fresh trim, new corn rows or a “shape up” for their fade or ‘fro. No matter which style is chosen, both groups will be on a mission to sharpen their image to look their best in front of parade revelers on the crowded streets of Waterfront Drive. 

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