Participants of a torchlight procession dance their way to the Neil “Mr. Melee” Blyden Festiville during the 2017 August Emancipation Festival. File Photo: NGOVOU GYANG

The show must go on at August Emancipation Festival despite a slashed budget and scaled-back events, according to Education and Culture Minister Myron Walwyn.

Speaking Monday at a press briefing at The Moorings, the minister strongly defended the decision to put on the annual event when the Virgin Islands is still in hurricane recovery mode.

In fact, he said, in these times celebrating the territory’s culture is vital, and he is calling on experts to enhance that focus.

“The government recognises that as a territory we are facing challenging economic times, but it is even more important … that we provide an opportunity to highlight and embrace the culture and heritage of the Virgin Islands,” he said.

However, given that the budget has been slashed in half — down to $350,000 from the $700,000 provided in previous years — the VI Festivals and Fairs Committee has had to be economical and “cut the cloth to suit,” he explained.

Scaled back

According to VIFFC Chairman Trefor Grant, that means most activities will be shortened and scaled back for the Festival, which officially takes place July 27 through Aug. 10.

Entertainment will be centralised at the Festival Village Grounds in Road Town, which will retain its usual atmosphere of cultural food, drinks and entertainment, though with fewer vendors than usual, and some events, such as the Prince and Princess and Miss BVI pageants, adopting new formats.

Retained from previous years outside of Road Town will be the popular Rise and Shine Tramp in East End on Aug. 8 and the Carrot Bay Cultural Festival events on Aug. 10, such as donkey races and children’s games. Also to continue this year are the gospel presentation on Aug. 2 and the Freedom March and emancipation service on Aug. 5.

Mr. Grant described “numerous challenges,” budgetary and otherwise, on the road to the Festival, which is themed “Restore and Revive our Cultural Scene, BVI Strong for Festival 2018,” but said he is proud of the work the committee has done.

“I would really beg the general public to come out and support the festivities,” Mr. Grant said. “Although it’s a shortened festivity we’d like you to still come out and patronise all the events that we’ve laboured to put on for you.”

Stuart Donovan, the VIFFC member heading up entertainment, said the lineup (see sidebar) is robust despite the limited budget. Mr. Donovan explained that the flooding that cancelled last year’s festivities “put us in a unique situation.”

“Most of those artists [from last year] … honoured their contracts, so that made it possible for us to have what I think is a very detailed and nice lineup,” he said.

Cultural theme

In order to expand the focus on culture, the ministry has enlisted Drs. Katherine Smith and Richard Georges, two cultural scholars who have “carried out the charge of … infusing Festival with more cultural and historically relevant events and activities,” Mr. Walwyn said.

These will include cultural artefacts on display at the festival village, and a documentary about the historical significance of the event.

Additionally, two new dramatic performances will be unveiled during the Aug. 3 food fair at the Central Administration Building.

The first, performed by educator and vocalist Rochelle Smith, is based on the life of Perreen Georges, who in 1811 gave testimony that led to the conviction of plantation owner Arthur Hodge, who could be the only British subject ever executed for the murder of a slave.

The other performance covers the planning of a thwarted 1831 island-wide rebellion, “which plotted to take over these islands,” explained Dr. Smith, “so in the place of a British colonial government continuing after emancipation, these islands would have been ruled by the former slaves themselves.”

Also, beginning this week, ZBVI Radio will air a series of voice clips titled “Virgin Islands: The Beautiful Culture,” which will delve into the origins of the music and dance that originated on local plantations, including fungi and its predecessors, Dr. Smith explained. Other topics covered will be Creole proverbs and an attempt to answer the question, “Who is Moko Jumbie?”

According to Mr. Walwyn, the renewed focus on culture is much needed.

“We have moved away from the meaning of our ceremony over the years, but this is a chance to build back and honour what it used to be,” he said.