Large troupes, towering moko jumbies, and a colossal whale float were hallmarks of the 2023 August Monday Parade on Aug. 6. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The Virgin Islands went big this year for the 69th August Emancipation Festival, bringing both international headliners and VI artists to the Irene Penn-O’Neal Festival Village almost every night since the village opened with the Gospel Explosion on July 31, while featuring new and returning cultural events during the day.

This year also saw the return of the full Coney Island experience, where families could experience rides; try their hand at carnival games; and enjoy their favourite fried fare.

Overall, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said the festival was a well-organised success, and he appreciated everyone’s participation.

A torchlight procession was held three days before the parade, also as part of the August Emancipation Festival. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

“There were notable absences such as the calypso show and horseracing,” said Dr. Wheatley, who is also the minister of culture. “There is also a healthy debate about strengthening the cultural elements of the festival, which will be helpful as we plan moving forward.”

Celebrating culture

The premier said in advance of the celebrations that he aimed to place focus on more VI cultural events in this year’s observance, including celebrations in Carrot Bay and East End. This year also included the cultural food fair and a traditional torchlight procession.

Marchers gathered at Noel Lloyd Positive Action Movement Park early in the evening of Aug. 3, passing out the towering torches to be lit before making their way down Waterfront Drive. Though the gathering included only a few dozen people, participants danced along to the twang of the triangle and percussive boom of the Zion Sounds Fungi Band as its truck led the way through Road Town.

The river of yellow torchlights danced against an inky sky and progressed to the festival grounds — luckily arriving before the showers that plagued the Big People Party later that evening.

Big People Party

That night, the intermittent rain kept many attendees away even though entry was free. Nevertheless, Too Smooth Band drew in a few revellers to observe from the surrounding booths selling food and drinks.

Some community members questioned the decision to not include a calypso night in this year’s festivities, but calypso artist King Paido did at least bring some familiar songs to the stage.

The genre switched to pop when Klimax took the stage, singing songs including Maroon 5’s “Memories.”

Rain continued to hamper attendance for Xtreme, featuring Pascal, and headliner VIO International.

Food fair

The next day, a sunny afternoon at Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park created an ideal setting for a well attended Cultural Food Fair. Eats for sale included whelks, Tortola peas soup, corned and doved pork, barbecue, fresh fruit drinks, tarts and other desserts, and much more.

A sunny afternoon at Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park created an ideal setting for a well attended Cultural Food Fair. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The Cane Garden Bay-based Mill Round Farm also offered vegan dishes.

Co-owner Shaniqua Vanterpool said this was the business’s third year participating in the food fair, and she was happy to offer cultural foods accommodating of various diets.

“We are trying to make the best of what’s in our natural environment while promoting our culture, even if it’s through agriculture or vegan food,” she said.

Her offerings included pigeon peas quinoa, plantain lasagna, fried cauliflower, vegetable fritters, curried pumpkin, and snacks like breadfruit chips. She added that she tries to offer healthy options that embrace Caribbean culture and fit the festive vibe.

“We really want to remember why we are celebrating festival and not to forget the culture part of festival,” she said. “It’s part of our identity.”

Community leader Janice Stoutt also provided a story hour, relaying anecdotes like the tale of a boy who was given lunch money to split with his brother and innocently attempted to divide the coin itself. At the heart of all her tales was some kernel of knowledge. Moko jumbies and steel pan bands kept the vibes going.

Reggae Night

That evening, crowds flooded the festival village grounds for Reggae Night. The lineup featured performances from Final Faze, Macabee, Sister Joyce, Revelation, Jada Kingdom, Morgan Heritage, and OMG LIVE. Jamaican artist Jada Kingdom seemed to be a highlight for many fans, who rushed the barrier as she took the stage. Robert Green, a 25-year-old attendee, said she was his favourite.

“If you want to compare it to other festivals, this might be the best one up there,” Mr. Green added.

Giovanni Grant, who attended the village with friends, rated his night a 10 out of 10.

“It’s a lot of people out; it’s a nice vibe,” he said.

The only downside of the night for some attendees was a perceived lack of preparation for the crowds, with complaints of long wait-times for entry as the night progressed.

Soca Night

Another musical highlight of festival season was this year’s Soca Monarch Competition on Aug. 5. Though Ramon G secured the position of first runner-up this year, he lost his crown to J’versatile. Sporting a shining green jacket and surrounded by dancers in coordinating outfits, J’versatile was one of the last competitors to take the stage.

He and other artists brought all manner of props and characters — including a wolfman prowling in the background — to their acts. Flames shot up through the crowds as people cheered on the performers.

Though Ramon G secured the position of first runner-up this year, he lost his crown to J’versatile. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The bright blue St. Lucia flag waved high among others from the region as J’versatile performed his song “Boo Thang” and was later announced as the winner chosen by a panel of judges.

The evening continued with performances by Adam O with Blind Ears, VIBE, and KES the Band. Adam O paid special tribute to the VI, thanking attendees for their enthusiastic support of him at the 68th festival.

“If you have a flag, I want you to put it in the air,” he told the crowd, also encouraging them to wave their phone lights and hands.

August Monday Parade

At the centre of the celebration was a robust and feather-filled August Monday Parade that packed Waterfront Drive on Aug. 7.

The procession included various delights for families, many of whom enjoyed a cool down from the waterspout of a gargantuan humpback whale float designed by Beyond the Reef. The conservation group took the opportunity to highlight the need to protect migratory habitat for cetaceans passing through VI waters. The sculpture was decorated with real “ghost” fishing nets recovered through their beach clean-up activities.

Other vehicles featured slices of VI history, with participants on one float tossing out slices of fresh sugar cane to youngsters standing on the sidelines.

Dance troupes kept the party moving through the streets with their green, pink and blue costumes.

At the centre of the celebration was a robust and feather-filled August Monday Parade that packed Waterfront Drive on Aug. 7. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

One of the first youth groups to perform for the judges centred their routine on a wildcat theme, re-creating the iconic Lion King lofting of a cuddly lion cub.

Moko jumbies performed daring feats, supporting one another as they lofted their towering wooden legs into the air.

Flag Fest

On the night of Aug. 8, revellers from this territory, the USVI, Trinidad and other Caribbean countries and territories flew their nations’ flags high at the Flag Fest.

Artists, too, represented a myriad of Caribbean countries, with performances by Hashim “ThaDream” Lewis, Monea, Patrice Roberts, Valiant, and Ritical.

VI artist Monea performed a much-anticipated set with a band made up of Brent Hoyte (guitar), Alton Bertie (keyboards), Thea Cooke (bass), and Terrance Neale Jr. (drums and music director).

“Honestly, it was extremely surreal to see how quickly everyone came forward to the front of the stage and even stayed in the rain,” Mr. Neale said of the show. “The local support was extremely good.”

Even above the sound of the drums, he said, he could hear the crowd singing along word for word.

“It was an amazing experience and an incredible opportunity,” he added. “It was humbling for all of us. We’re extremely grateful to the festival committee for the opportunity to put on a great show.”

This year featured not one, but two “last lap” parties at the festival village, on Aug. 9 and Aug. 12. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Attendees Justin Smith and Alexys Titley were both well pleased.

“The artists made sure the audience felt included,” Ms. Titley said, rating her night a nine out of 10.

Mr. Smith said that the performances were amazing despite the rain, and that Patrice Roberts was the highlight of his night.

This year featured not one, but two “last lap” parties at the festival village, on Aug. 9 and Aug. 12.

Attendance was diminished as the festival season wound to a close, but that didn’t stop the Razor Blades from rocking so hard their percussionist broke a drum at the first “last lap.” But the show went on as the band lauded the joys of the Rise and Shine Tramp.

See the Beacon‘s Facebook page for even more festival photos.