When Louis Lee Sing started the North Coast Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2017 he envisioned rallying the quiet rural community of Blanchisseuse to create a foremost vacation destination complete with an enviable bed-and-breakfast industry and entertainment facilities.
Five years on, he sees the festival and “the most natural of all our rural communities” on a steady course towards this goal.
“I remain optimistic that it will be a model for the development of rural communities, not only in Trinidad but in the wider Caribbean and across the world. I think you’ve got to stop hoping that governments will come and do things. You’ve certainly got to begin to develop your community with people pooling their efforts–using the same philosophy of the cooperative movement–and their resources and building for themselves,” he said of Blanchisseuse in a Sunday Guardian interview.
Former Port-of-Spain mayor Louis Lee Sing
The area moved from having 21 available rooms to attract visitors when he pitched the idea to the community in the fest’s first year to 67 in 2019. That figure has since risen to over 100 rooms as more residents acquire properties and open up for business. Lee Sing said the community’s target of 200 rooms would encourage a regular flow of guests and ensure the construction of restaurants and entertainment facilities. To keep the entertainment coming, there are plans to create a dance and drama company. Another priority is the development of the North Coast Credit Union, which was recently started to help residents save and access a pool of financial resources.
Now in its fourth edition after a two-year pause due to the pandemic, a steadily evolving North Coast Jazz and Heritage Festival has meant the addition of two new features this year. Organisers are expecting international guests, and to extend its appeal to a younger audience, they have introduced a third day, “Blue Sunday–a J’Ouvert paint experience in May”–which will add a new dimension to the much-anticipated annual end of May event.
Hosted at the Sir Solomon Hochoy Park, Blanchisseuse and billed as “3 Days, 3 Events, 3 Experiences”, the opening night on May 27 (Friday) will feature the 2015 film Bazodee starring Machel Montano at 7 pm, while the second day, entitled “Family”, pays tribute to Lord Nelson and kicks off from 3 pm. The J’Ouvert which begins at 2 am, will round off the fest on day three. At this event, younger patrons will be given the chance to jump to the pulsating rhythms of Hadco Phase II Pan Groove and appreciate an authentic old-time experience, alongside avid jazz enthusiasts.
Fusion Jazz pianist Adan Hagley.
Courtesy Adan Hagley
The festival’s headline event on May 27 promises to serve up some scintillating jazz, and jazz-kaiso and jazz-soca fusions from a line up of talent including fusion jazz pianist Adan Hagley, musician Sharon Phillips out of Tobago, vibesy music band Freetown Collective, gospel singer Michelle Sylvester, jazz musician Tony Paul, vocalist LeAndra Head, and pannist Johann Chuckaree, with each artiste expected to perform something from Lord Nelson’s repertoire. A theatrical production directed by Penelope Spencer is carded to lead off the day’s activities.
Artistes are adding the final touches to their sets and welcome the return to in-person performances.
Contacted last Tuesday, Hagley, who has been involved in music since age eight and who also composes and arranges, said his preparations for the fest were going well and that he was excited to be back out on stage with his band after more than two years.
“I have some new additions to the band, so it’s been fun getting to touch base with these guys. I’m doing a bit of new music, trying out some new material, so I’m excited to see how the crowd responds,” he said.
He plans to bring his typical upbeat vibes and energy.
“I always try to have fun, bring a blend of jazz standard mixed with the popular music; calypso, soca. I’m always trying to find ways of touching and bringing people into an appreciation of jazz and instrumental music. I’m excited to share, and I hope everyone is appreciative of the music on the weekend.”
Commenting that the energy between the Dean Williams band and the entertainers was great and that she expected an amazing show which could never be duplicated, Phillips said her set would be highly emotional, and one of the hardest she has ever done because of the events of the last two years. The versatile vocalist whose first love is jazz and who also composes wowed the audience at the fest in 2019. She said she lost her mother last September and, like her, her fellow artistes were trying to rebuild.
Gospel artiste Michelle Sylvester.
“But we have to govern our emotions and remember that we are channels for a greater purpose. Music is really powerful and I use it for healing for the nation at this time,” she said.
Her first song will be dedicated to the two children—Kymani Francis, two, and Levi Andrews, 12–who lost their lives under terrible circumstances last week.
“I was broken by the spirit of what we have become, and I think that even the content of our music should be a language of love and healing. I think artistes have a responsibility where their craft is concerned, and it’s disrespectful to propagate the youths with negativity and then expect them to act in a particular way. Children learn easier through music than through the spoken word. We need to live that truth and be that change,” she said.
Sylvester, who said she was excited and privileged to be on the cast for the first time, shared that she was looking forward to uplifting, being a blessing to the audience, and bringing a different side of her that many had yet to see. The first-ever winner of the Groovy Soca Monarch title in 2005, Sylvester had a life-changing revelation 15 years ago and now sings gospel music.
“It’s gonna be also about love, especially in this time when we are now coming out of this pandemic and now able to interact with each other. And just being on stage with (Mista) Vybe and Reuel Lynch will be an amazing time,” Sylvester said.
She said she was also anticipating reuniting with Mista Vybe to perform their popular 2007 song, “Always on my Mind”.
Describing the typical scene on the first festival night which is free to the public, Lee Sing who shares organising responsibilities with Margaret Gittens, John Gill, and his son, Darren Lee Sing, and is supported by Monique Assam-Peters and others, said, “Families come from the village, and they bring their chairs. We offer the children popcorn and things like that. So it’s really an evening where we get the community together.”
With the catchphrase: Born here and played here, the North Coast Jazz and Heritage Festival production committee’s focus has always been to highlight the work of T&T artistes. In its first year, the fest honoured the legacy of Lord Kitchener and in 2019, its last edition before the pandemic, the Mighty Shadow.
Lee Sing said such projects were intended to inspire the “greatness that resides with us” which we fail to uplift.
“We’re uplifting it through music, art, craft and cuisine,” he said.
Blanchisseuse has a population of about 1,500, and young and old in the community have always come together to make the festival a success. The local cuisine and art and craft booths, maintenance crews, and car park security all come from the people of Blanchisseuse, he said. They benefit financially, and a further monetary contribution is made to the community council to train the residents in managing bed and breakfast operations.
The fest offers a park-and-ride service from the North Park at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain, and Lee Sing said he hopes that this year’s turnout matches the 1,500 patrons who attended two years ago.