“Soukou, Soukou; mayday, mayday, mayday!” was the cry on Saturday May 26th, as the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) convened a consultation to rescue Saint Lucia’s flower festivals. The call was answered by members of La Rose and La Marguerite groups that, in the end, still seem to favour heavier involvement of CDF and the church for their survival.
Despite the attendance of Governor General Dame Pearlette Louisy, Monsignor Patrick A.B. Anthony, and other prominent persons in the cultural sphere, it was clear that the festivals lacked the most important source of support – the people who have been its lifeblood for centuries. The flower festivals have slowly dwindled and the consultation sought the input of those involved to resuscitate the tradition and guide this year’s celebrations.
Floral societies have their roots set in Africa and the current musical rivalry, cloaked under the display of a mock administration (from the royal family to army, health service, etc.), expressed the desire and capacity of slaves for self-governance. With a known history dating from the 1700s, Monsignor Anthony (PABA) explained, Saint Lucia’s two flower festivals evolved with the participation of the Catholic Church.
The eventual ‘excommunication’ from the church due to the all too real violence that accompanied the enmity of these mock courts, saw further changes, which PABA suggests is partly responsible for the decline in popularity. Social attitudes, shifts in religious denominations, lack of cultural identity, and modern technology were posited as having had further negative impact.
With only nine La Rose and four La Marguerite groups left on the island, it is clear that something must be done. Says CDF Cultural Field Officer George ‘Fish’ Alphonse, “Sometimes I think we are celebrating something we do not understand. Now is the time. Now is the time to intervene, or else ‘bal fini’.”
Barbara Duboulay, CDF’s Programmes Coordinator (Schools) says the need is for greater involvement of young people. She was supported by Kentillia Louis, Curriculum Officer for Secondary Schools, who noted the resistance in incorporating the Flower Festivals in schools.
Dame Pearlette, formerly lecturer and principal of Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, insists that sensitisation must start at the Teachers Training College. If teachers do not know or are even passionate about the island’s culture she insists, the effort in schools will continue to be met with little success.
Members of the groups also cited what, in their observations, have contributed to the floral societies decline. Among the causes were competition from mothers’ and fathers’ groups, conflict with the school schedule, lack of knowledge of and interest from the media, the lack and inadequate distribution of resources – financial and human, lack of access to new media and technologies, lack of documentation, the disinterest of youth and the refusal of master chantwѐls and musicians to share their knowledge and skills.
The change in date of carnival, which has it running almost neck and neck with the flower festivals, was also stated as a major challenge by all present. This impacts the preparation time, and divides the attention of sponsors, the media and the public.
The solutions presented at the end of the day seemed to only mirror what was stated by Monsignor Anthony and panellists Bernard Fanis, Agatha Jn. Panel and Frank Norville. This raised the question that if the solutions are so obvious, why has there not been greater progress.
Steps forward included better documentation of the flower festivals, the establishment of a cultural academy to pass on the knowledge and passion for the traditional arts, increased subventions and review of the policy for disbursement of funds from government, improved collaboration of the media, utilisation of new media, increasing engagement of schools, more participation from the church and community volunteers, targeted research on the needs and challenges of different floral societies and greater peer support among the floral societies.
Monsignor Anthony cited works by the likes of Barbara Cadet, Ronald ‘Boo’ Hinkson, Charles Cadet, Derek and Roderick Walcott, Dunstan St. Omer, MacDonald Dixon, Luther Francois and John Robert Lee, which he said has laid a path of cultural engineering of the traditional arts. This he says, makes traditional art forms more accessible to a wider audience and is necessary for their survival.
That cultural cannot depend solely on government was hinted at by the notable absence of Lorne Theophilus; Minister for Tourism, Heritage and the Creative Industries. However the CDF has undertaken to explore various means to reverse the slow decline in the La Rose and La Marguerite festivals, expressions that developed in the creole context and are representative of our national identity.