EVERY JULY and August the streets of Bridgetown, Barbados fill with scantily clad revelers out to enjoy the island’s biggest Carnival: Crop-Over. The fun filled festival which draws crowds of people from all over the world, including the UK, is over in a flurry of calypso, feathers and merriment. However what party goers do not see is the months of preparations it takes to put on the biggest party in town.
Crop-Over began as a celebration of the end of the sugar harvest, when the last of the crop was handed over. Since then it has grown into a month long festival which culminates in the Grand-Kadooment: a procession of costumed revelers that dances and drinks over a six mile walk.
Despite the carefree spirit associated with carnival, taking part in the Crop-Over procession is far from spontaneous. Revelers must sign up to one of the registered bands and choose their costume weeks in advance. Registration and costumes can cost up to £140.
Competition to attract people to bands is fierce and band leaders hold regular parties, set up websites and launch their costume designs in elaborate fashion shows in a bid to get vital registrations.
“It is very stressful,” said veteran costume designer and band leader Gwyneth Squires, “it takes about three or four months of work to get the costumes ready. Towards the end of preparations you are lucky to catch an hour’s sleep a night.”
It can cost band leaders up to £60,000 to get a band on the road. Money is earned back through costume sales but many band leaders say they are lucky to break even. Many bands apply to local companies for sponsorship to support the production of their bands. “I do it for the love not the money,” said Squires.
Squires has been leading bands for 26 years and holds the record for the most amount of prizes won for her bands.
“Putting on a band is a competitive business,” explained the band leader, rivalry between bands is fierce and cash prizes for Best Band or Best Male and Female costume are seriously sought after.
Indeed, the cash prizes are the only way many band leaders can avoid making a loss on their bands. For Squires who works as a band leader full time Crop-Over is more than a party, it is a livelihood and way of life.
Renee Ratcliffe, another band leader, has been involved with Crop-Over for 19 years. Her British husband cannot see the attraction, “he thinks it is all ridiculous,” said Ratcliffe, “the worrying over getting sponsorship, the months of work on costumes, he thinks I’m mad,” she added.
For Barbadians in the UK however, Crop-Over is something to be missed. Dr Andrea Jordan, a Research Scientist, is a Barbadian who moved to the UK in 2007. Jordan still misses the Crop-Over festival. “I miss hearing Calypso saturating the air, people humming and singing all around me, the upbeat, anticipatory and suspense pervading the entire island,” she said.
Last year Squires was invited by the Barbados Tourism Association to put on a carnival band at the Notting Hill carnival. She was impressed with what she saw, “there were more people on the road there, all the bands were very elaborate,” she says.
Jordan on the other hand suggests Notting Hill Carnival is nothing but a “taster-session,” compared to its Caribbean ancestors. “If you ever experienced Notting Hill Carnival, then Crop Over is about a 1000% better, charged and exciting, set in warm tropical paradise with authentic scintillating foods and drink. No coats, no cardigan, just let your hair down in true tropical style,” she said.
On August 2nd, the day after the Grand-Kadooment parade, the streets of Bridgetown will be littered with sequins, feathers and empty cups. Party goers will be nursing their hangovers and sunburn.
Meanwhile, in the many band houses dotted around the island a series of dedicated band leaders will be busy, starting preparations for next year’s festival.
First published in The Voice newspaper, http://archive.voice-online.co.uk/content.php?show=20221 27 June 2011