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Cruz Bay
Tuesday, November 28, 2023


St. John's first week-long arts festival, which opens on Saturday, Feb. 17, is a celebration of home-grown talents, with a few visiting music entities thrown in for good measure.
The festival has something in the way of the visual, performing and culinary arts for just about everyone, and it has them morning, noon and night, in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay and several points in between.
Cruz Bay Park is "action central." It will be the scene of a daily food fair and lunchtime concert – with a different style of music featured each day – from noon to 2 p.m. and a crafts fair from 2 to 5 p.m., as well as several evening events.
Other daily offerings are open invitations to visit participating art galleries from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and to take in the regular live entertainment at various night spots. Some of the galleries will take turns hosting "meet the artists" receptions with live music and refreshments each evening from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
There will be dance to watch and dance to do, for children and adults; a play presentation and a play reading; music, mask and puppet workshops for kids; a cultural heritage film, a fish fry, native dress and sand castle competitions, and evening concerts in the park, at the St. John School of the Arts and in the third-floor atrium of The Marketplace.
From off island, Chicago blues artist Corky Siegal (harmonica, piano, vocals) and his Chamber Blues percussionist, Frank Donaldson, both familiar faces to music fans on St. John, will present workshops for kids Monday and Tuesday mornings and a concert at the School of the Arts on Wednesday night. Al Rapone and Zydeco Express will give a Cajun music concert Friday night at The Marketplace. And a Mariachi band will stroll around Cruz Bay night spots – with a quick trip to Maho Bay Camps and back – on Monday night.
For the complete daily schedule of festival activities, go to the Things to do section of St. John Source.
The program incorporates several events that would be happening even without the festival – the third annual Safety Zone Art Auction and Dinner Dance on Saturday night at the Westin Resort, the annual Coral Bay Open golf tournament at Skinny Legs (a fund raiser this year for the new Coral Bay Middle School), and the Virgin Islands National Park's annual Black History Month Folk Life Festival activities at Annaberg.
Where the idea came from
It all came about because of the idea of one part-time St. John resident, Frank Langley, president of the not-for-profit St. John Arts Festival Inc. (The other officers are Julien Harley, vice president; Corine Matthias, secretary; and Ken Wild, treasurer.)
Langley, who in private life is president of Optimistic Products, a high technology company based in Salem, Mass., was the prime mover in a similar arts venture a decade ago on the other side of the world – in the town of Russell in the Bay of Islands area of New Zealand. "I started talking it up in 1988 and we ended up having the first festival in 1993," he recalls. "Today, it's still going."
When he came to St. John a couple of years ago, it immediately reminded him of Russell – a small community with a big arts talent pool. He started talking up the idea of a festival and was quickly steered to Ruth "Sis" Frank, director of the School of the Arts. In her, St. John administrator Julien Harley and others in the community, he found a warm reception.
"We did a study of the venues and the talent here," Langley says. "Julien said we needed something different and we needed children's programing." Harley also suggested the festival be held in February, "since it's Black History Month," Langley adds. "We checked the dates of the National Park festival and the Safety Zone auction and decided that if we were going to do it, we should synchronize it with those events and fill in the gaps."
While celebrating the local arts is a primary purpose of the festival, "We were also determined to hear music from other cultures," Langley says. "Otherwise, we're hearing the music we hear all the time. You stimulate creativity when you bring in music from abroad." The idea extends to the medium of film, as well.
Sunday night's cinema offering, presented by the V.I. Film Society, is "Awara Soup" (in French, "Le bouillon d'Awara"). The 1996 documentary feature about a village in the interior of French Guiana is clearly intended to be the subject of discussion after viewing. Three hundred years of history intersect in Mana, the town whose 1,500 residents speak 13 different languages yet live together in harmony.
According to an article on the California Newsreel web site www.newsreel.org/films/lebouill.htm, the 71-minute film "reveals that ‘creolization' is not just a historical artifact but a dynamic, ongoing process, encompassing more and more of the world's people. The film's title comes from a local Easter specialty, a kind of gumbo … There are as many recipes for awara soup as there are people … ‘Awara Soup' comments subtly on the xenophobic debate raging in France (and this country) over immigration." It suggests that the key to the community's harmony "may be its fluid sense of national identity, neither assimilationist nor traditionalist, but inclusive and dynamic."
A professional approach
The festival organization adopted the policy that "We pay all professional performers," Langley says. "We pay the accountant. Everybody else is volunteer."
Those engaged by the festival organization to perform or present ("with contracts signed") include the Love City Pan Dragons, Smalls and the Music Makers, Ah We, Anacrusis Brass (a University of the Virgin Islands ensemble), The Echo People, Inner Vision, John Cahill Ensemble, V.I. Film Society, Island Dance Ensemble, and the off-island Andres Bermudez Marcano Mariachi de Mexico band.
The paid-admission events are Sunday night's double feature play and film at the School of the Arts ($10 adults and $5 students), Monday night's play reading at the Fish Trap restaurant ($5 donation), Tuesday night's Island Dance Ensemble performance at The Marketplace ($15 and $5), Wednesday night's Corky Siegal-Frank Donaldson concert at the School of the Arts ($20 and $10), Thursday night's John Cahill Ensemble "Musical Potpourri" at the School of the Arts ($15 and $5), and Friday night's Al Rapone and Zydeco Express concert at The Marketplace ($20).
The School of the Arts is presenting its various festival offerings on its own and selling the Wednesday concert (at the door only). St. Croix blues impresario Charlie Campbell is presenting and selling the Al Rapone concert (tickets in advance at both Connections offices and St. John Hardware, and at the door). Safety Zone and Skinny Legs are running their own art auction and golf tournament fund- raisers, respectively. (If you're wondering where Coral Bay's golf course is located, the answer is: It isn't. You've got to know Coral Bay and Skinny Legs to understand.) Financing for everything else – upwards of $10,000, all for local talent except for the mariachi band – is going through the festival organization coffers, Langley says.
For ticket information for the festival-sponsored paid events and any other details about the festival, telephone Langley at (941) 779-4038.
Because no major grants or corporate sponsors are in place for this first festival, he says, his company is making an interest-free loan to cover expenses. If ticket sales to festival-sponsored performances and donations collected at a table that will be set up in Cruz Bay Park all week exceed costs, the ne
t proceeds will be used to fund scholarships for St. John youngsters who want to pursue career studies in the arts.
"This first festival is just a small start," Langley says. "For next year's we will be better organized as far as seeking funding." With wisdom born of experience, he reflects, "I guess there are so many scams in these parts of the world that credibility is an issue."
He cites Shirley Joseph, Sprauve School principal, is a good example of how enthusiasm for next year's festival will be bigger and better: "When I first started talking about the idea, she didn't understand what we hoped to accomplish," he recalls. But when she saw the program, it immediately reminded her of a festival from her childhood in Jamaica, "and she is all excited about it now."
Joseph puts it this way: "It's a great plus for the island of St. John, something we can build on, refine and really offer the Virgin Islands." Reared "in an area where every other year there were these kinds of festivals," she recalls, "I saw them lead to more schools of the arts and more students being exposed to the arts and making choices to pursue careers in arts fields."
Although planning and producing the festival has become an all-consuming project in recent weeks, Langley says, "It's making me happy. I'm having a good time. It's a perfect balance to the technology focus of my business. Having music in my blood – my mother, the music teacher – it's gotta come out some time."

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