Coming Home: 50 Years of Montserrat Festival

December 5, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer—

Montserrat Masquerade

This month, thousands of Montserratians living abroad will return home, many for the first time in decades. The number of people on the island during the 50th annual Montserrat Festival, Dec. 14 through Jan. 1, is expected to double, a result of the greatest effort to bring back displaced expatriates since the 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano spurred more than half of the population to leave.

The Festival, Montserrat’s version of carnival, has soldiered on since the eruption (which was preceded by Hurricane Hugo, which destroyed a large number of Montserrat’s home just four years earlier) ground the island’s economy, tourism and cultural activities nearly to a halt, but on a diminished scale. Festival 50, however, promises to bring a return to pre-volcano levels of excitement, with a slate of unique events to go along with the annual Calypso King and Beauty Queen competitions, and Jump Up Day on Jan. 1.

Jump Up Day 1967 Sally Doria
Montserrat Festival, 1967. Photo: Sally Doria/Vintage Montserrat

Soca Frenzy Radio will bring Edwin Yearwood, Lil Rick, Skinny Fabulous, David Rudder and other international soca stars to the island for a Dec. 22 stageshow. Montserrat’s literary festival, the Alliouagana Festival of the Word, held in previous years in November, was moved to this coming weekend to better coincide with Festival.

Sir Howard Fergus, writer, historian and a former acting governor of the UK overseas territory, took the opportunity to write a book, Festival at Fifty: 1962 to 2012, telling the unique history of Montserrat Festival. “Because there were Christmas celebrations, the Montserrat program has always had its own particular sap,” Fergus explains. “It’s really very similar to Carnival—Trinidad and Tobago is the great model—but it takes place at Christmas time.”

Montserrat Masquerade
Photo: Sally Doria/Vintage Montserrat

Christmas was always celebrated “in a fairly big way” on Montserrat, Fergus says, a tradition that has its roots in slavery. “Christmas used to be a week. We used to speak of Christmas Sunday and Christmas Monday and so on whereas [other] people saw Christmas as one day.”

The festival has its climax on New Year’s Day, known as Jump Up Day, when masqueraders, often encumbered by chains representing slavery, travel door to door and receive small gifts.

Montserrat Jump Up Day, 1967
Montserrat Jump Up Day, 1967. Photo: Sally Doria/Vintage Montserrat

Montserrat became famous for its striking costumes, particularly, Fergus says, after its mas bands made their first international appearance at the 1976 Carifestival in Guyana. “The Montserrat masquerade has some resemblance to St. Kitts masquerade, and to Jamaican and Bahamian junkanoo, but is of its own type, with certain dances that display African history, rights of  fertility and so on,” he explains.

Ever since Mighty Arrow, of “Hot Hot Hot” and “Tiny Winy” fame, became Montserrat’s most recognizable export more than three decades ago, the Calypso King competition has been the Festival season’s top draw, and it has remained vibrant through the post-volcano years. This year’s field includes Herman “Cupid” Francis, who also happens to be Montserrat’s official Coordinator of Culture, and De Bear, the Montserrat-born calypsonian who is Antigua’s reigning Calypso King. “People [who have left Montserrat] do come back to take part so there will be a rich group of persons highly skilled in the art of calypso,” Fergus says.

Montserrat’s so-called Exclusion Zone (which includes the island’s destroyed former capital of Plymouth) may still be uninhabitable, and its habitable areas require infrastructure, there is a hope on Montserrat that a vibrant Festival 50 will help pave the way for increased tourism and economic opportunity.

“While on one hand it is an economic asset for the country, it brings out the spirit of volunteerism,” Fergus says of the aggregate benefits of Festival. “[People] are contributing as members of a community to an overall performance which contributes to the image of the island and brightens the image of the island.”

For more info on Montserrat’s Festival 50, visit the official website here. Howard Fergus’ Festival at 50 book is available on Kindle.

Photo: Sally Doria/Vintage Montserrat