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When pop princess Rihanna began attending Barbados’ Crop Over in 2011, the event got a publicity boost that money could not buy. Her presence at the biggest festival on the island of her birth, then and subsequently in 2013 and 2015, like a kind of celebrity fairy dust got tongues wagging and pictures circulating across the globe and etched it in many people’s minds as, ‘the carnival that Rihanna goes to’.
In its purest form, Crop Over has nothing to do with carnival; it’s a harvest festival dating back to the 18th century (some sources say 17th), which celebrated the successful end of the sugar cane season with feasting, singing and dancing. When the festival was revived in 1974, following its demise in the 1940s, new elements were added - and it gradually began to mirror the pre-Lenten Carnivals of Trinidad and Brazil.
Today, the masquerade aspect of Crop Over is its main attraction, with thousands of costumed revellers portraying different themes as they parade through the streets of the capital, Bridgetown, on the first Monday in August. Fittingly known as Grand Kadooment (a local word for a loud commotion and merriment) the parade marks the culmination of a three-month cultural pot pourri which includes visual arts, spoken word, craft, food, history walks and lectures and, of course, music.
The buzz starts in May each year, with numerous costume band launches, a thanksgiving church service and the Mega Cavalcade, which showcases local soca artists. June sees the official opening of Crop Over with the Ceremonial Delivery of the Last Canes and Crop Over City Fest. It is an opportunity to re-live the origins of the festival, and sample Barbadian traditions such as the Landship, a theatrical group which performs naval and maypole dances, and the Tuk Band, an ensemble of musicians who play songs which blend African and British folk music on drums and a pennywhistle. Another highlight is the crowning of the King and Queen of the Sugar Cane Crop Industry for the most productive cane growers; Grantley Hurley and Judy Cumberbatch have held the title for a number of years.
The festival moves to the rhythm of calypso and soca music, the latter being the more up-tempo off-spring of the former. Jazz also features at the Pan Fusion concert. Calypsonians perform their latest offerings nightly, in tents (there were seven at last count), and judges begin visiting these forums in late June to decide who is worthy of competing for the Pic-o-de-Crop Monarch title.
Bridgetown becomes party central in July, when the pace of activity intensifies. Major music competitions are decided at both junior and adult level, including the Sweet Soca and Party Monarch titles at Soca Royale. In 2016, the Bashment Soca Monarch contest was introduced on ‘Phenomenal Friday’ (the first Friday in the month), and won by Stiffy, singing Tek Off Something.
When it comes to fetes (parties), the choices are endless. In the final week of the festival, it is possible to party non-stop from the Friday through to Kadooment Monday. All that’s required are stamina and a penchant for ‘wukking up’, the Bajan term for their high-energy waistline gyrations. Begin with a breakfast jam before dawn, followed by a lunchtime boat cruise. Back on land, why not pack an icebox full of drinks and head to a cooler fete?
Then, if you’re still standing, carry on to another themed event or get down and dirty at the Foreday Morning Jam, the first street parade in the wee hours of Kadooment Day. It’s a unique mix of female revellers in fashion forward swimwear and bands of people smeared in multi-coloured paint and mud - a sharp contrast to the spectacle of sequinned and feathered masqueraders who will dominate later in the day and draw the festival to a close.
Crop Over 2016 promises to be particularly special, as it falls a few months before Barbados commemorates 50 years of independence on 30 November. Officials are predicting a bumper crop of visitors - and it just remains to be seen whether Rihanna will be amongst them.