WeBeat St James Live, a nine-day cultural extravaganza showcasing the rich diversity of culture and talent that exist in Trinidad and Tobago assumed teen status this year.
For the past 13 years the event has been held at the St James Amphitheatre comprising varied night and day programmes, including a health day, talk show, culinary delights, jazz performances, kaiso night, children's show, steelband concert, amateur talent show and a steelband street parade.
The first festival in 2001, held on the first Friday in June, was called WeBeat–the Merging of Cultures, and consisted of late-night sidewalk shopping, and entertainment events featuring indigenous arts, focusing on dance and pan music.
On the Sunday night, scores of villagers and visitors thronged the venue to take in pan music from the Woodbrook Playboyz, St James Tripolians, Panorama champions Arima All Stars and tassa music from the Bis-Ali drummers, and on the Monday the festival shifted gears to offer free health checks to villagers.
During the week, a three-member panel comprising historian Michael Anthony, former Port-of-Spain Mayor and popular St James resident Stephenson Sargeant and Port-of-Spain City Corporation council representative Kent Taylor, spoke on the origins and evolution of the village.
The festival experienced tremendous growth over the next four years, peaking in 2005 with the widespread acceptance of WeTalent Amateur Night that unearthed lots of new, talented nationals, some of whom have gone on to make their marks in the entertainment industry. Names that come to mind include Umi Marcano and Leandra Head. It was also the era of the Five-A-Side Pan Competition that exposed, in great detail, the versatility and creativity of our steelbandsmen and women in a setting outside of Carnival.
The fact that in its 13th year it took the threat of a "no show" to stimulate funding for staging the festival tells a sad tale. For getting funding, according to Earl Crosby, president of the St James Community Improvement Committee (CIC), producer of the festival, has been the biggest challenge the CIC has faced over the years, notwithstanding businesses in the community benefiting, in a tangible way, from the influx of visitors to the community during the event.
"Getting sponsorship has been a task," Crosby said. "Some businesses seem reluctant to partner with us in staging this festival that exposes our community to the wider public, and helps to generate increased economic activity in the area.
WeBeat has evolved from an event whose base support came mainly from within the area and its immediate environs, to become one of T&T's signature events, attracting thousands of people from all over the country. In addition, it has become one of the events which Trinbagonians residing abroad have added to their calendar of 'must be in Trinidad for'."
The future of WeBeat, therefore, hinges upon the committee's ability to get financial assistance from corporate sponsors and local businesses in the area that benefit from the event's appeal.
One cannot help but observe, however, the drop in attendance at the shows, and the perceived general apathy of the public to WeBeat events over the last few years. Has the festival lost its appeal?
Has the omission of popular events from the calendar contributed to the seeming disinterest? What can the organisers do to revive that interest?
Committee member Sam Lewis believes upgrading the St James Amphitheatre, where all the events take place, must be the first step. "In its present form, it is not very user-friendly," he said. "There need to be better toilet facilities, dressing rooms, more comfortable seating, fencing, and other amenities that would allow us to introduce additional and better events to the public, and, hopefully, re-awaken their interest."
Crosby agrees with this, adding that infrastructural development of the facility would encourage promoters to rent the venue, which could earn revenue that can be used for maintenance "and ensure the sustainability of WeBeat."
Each year the festival pays homage to community elders and persons who have dedicated their lives to the promotion of artistic and cultural traditions. The first year's honoree was renowned steelband arranger/innovator Anthony "Skip" Williams.
Over the following years other honorees included Norman Darway, Julia Edwards, Mohammed Emamali, Pelham Goddard, Lincoln Phillips, Carlton Franco, Cecil Crosby, Roy Alexander, Velma Redhead, Anton LaFond, Carlton Phillip, Emrold Phillip (Brother Valentino), Hugh Borde, Alyson Brown, Winston Maynard, Mervyn Telfer, Denyse Plummer, Keith Simpson, and Daniel Brown (Trinidad Rio).
WeBeat was designed to promote the community of St James, and play a major role in promoting an opportunity for artistes to showcase their talent, while seeking to build a sustainable tourism product with domestic and international allure.
Given all the issues it now faces, the question is: "Where does it go from here?"