Review – Kingston Pon Di River Festival: Jamaica’s Latest Cultural Festival

This year’s Kingston Pon Di  River Literary, Arts, and Music Festival boasted a mesmerizing weekend of performances and is yet another great reason to pack your bags and hop on a flight to Kingston, Jamaica! 

Known for its vibrant nightlife—clubs pulsating to the beat of dancehall and sidesplitting theatre productions—Jamaica’s capital city is sometimes overlooked as a holiday destination. Instead visitors flock to the coast for a mellow sea and sand vacation. But Kingston Pon Di  River featured  an stunning showcase of performances.  

Now in its second year, the festival took place the weekend of April 27th and kicked off on the Friday night at Studio 38 in New Kingston. Billed as an “adults only” affair, the evening featured performances sizzling with erotic undertones.  Acts were interspersed between seductive rounds jazz, and the lineup included Rosie Murray, Tomlin Ellis, and poet Tanya Shirley, who gave an outstanding reading of her great work.

Events on Saturday and Sunday took place on the enchanting grounds of Boone Hall Oasis in Stony Hill, a suburb of Kingston. Boone Hall, a picturesque property with towering spathodea trees and a river running through is a popular venue for weddings and other functions and served as a stunning backdrop for the festival.

Boone Hall owner, Stephen Jones, explained that he recently acquired land adjacent to the original property, making the grounds even larger than it was for the festival in 2011. According to Jones, he hopes to be involved in many more collaborative ventures  like  Kingston Pon Di  River.  

Saturday night’s performances primarily featured various drumming ensembles. The lineup included Charles Town Maroon Drummers and Dancers, Rekala Drummers, L’Acadco Drum Xplosion, Latin Roots, and Kingston Drummers. An entire night of drumming did not at first seem terribly appealing, but the performances ended up being nothing short of astounding. From Latin Roots’ mellow beat of the bongo drums to the Kingston Drummers’ energized drumming skits, the audience swayed, clapped, and danced the night away.

L’Acadco Drum Xplosion gave a lively performance, and afterwards members Stephan Sinclair, Shane Blake, and Kemoy Outar filled me in on the genesis of the group. Most of the members attended St Catherine High School or St. George’s College, where they participated in their school’s drumming group. They describe their drumming style as Jamaican traditional and West African, and their instruments include djunjon and djembe drums. Some of their drums are made in Jamaica and some imported from West Africa.

Kingston Drummers also delivered a vibrant and highly animated performance, their faces contorted into dramatic expressions as they pounded away on their drums. In their wordless conversation with the audience, a great deal was said through only music and body movement. Employing the African storytelling style of call and response, Kingston Drummers served up a lengthy and delightful “dance and response” that involved bringing audience members on stage.

But the act that stole the night was not even listed on the program: a Revival service delivered by Bishop Christie and his congregation from St. Paul’s Halibethian Church in Yallahs, St. Thomas. This was a spectacular addition to the program and the climax of the evening, indeed of the entire weekend. The “act” was a Revival church service, which included a fully decorated Revival table laden with sodas, candles, duck breads and fruit.  The performance was electrifying, the presence of an ancestral force palpable as the St. Paul’s congregation moaned and stomped in tune with an unseen power.

Sunday’s festivities lasted all day and included writers, politicians, and musical artists. The performances were enjoyable and breaks between performances gave guests a chance to sample some of the delicious food for sale—the curried fish in coconut sauce was especially tasty. Guests could also meander past stalls filled with art, jewelry, clothing and accessories made by some of Jamaica’s best craftsmen.  

While most of the performers on Sunday were entertaining, some of the readings were distinctly less sophisticated than others or seemed to have been plugged in to fill a vacuum in the program. Open mic acts were interspersed throughout the day, and the organizers deserve credit for providing a venue where emerging writers could share their work. But maybe there were too many of these acts, and at some points they threatened to compromise the overall quality of the performances. Perhaps containing these contributions in the future will be beneficial.Kingston Pon Di  River

holds great potential as a cultural arts tourist product, and one of the presenters, American novelist Charlie Newton, compared Kingston to New Orleans and suggested that despite Kingston’s urban grittiness, it could like New Orleans become a venue for tourists. According to Janet Silvera, one of the festival organizers, Kingston Pon Di  River “is seeking to position [Kingston] as the cultural hub of the Caribbean.”   Heritage sites like Port Royal and Devon House, Kingston’s gastronomic offerings, and everything else from its street dances to sophisticated hot spots make the city an excellent venue for visitors who want to escape the all-inclusive hotels for a sampling of Jamaica in the raw.     

If you go to Kingston Pon Di  River Literary, Arts, and Music Festival:

  • Don’t try to drive to Boone Hall Oasis. While the property is delightful, the road the property is not. Park at the designated location and avail yourself of the free shuttle service.
  • If the organizers maintain the same format in upcoming years, no matter what you do, don’t leave early on the Saturday night and miss a performance like the church Revival service that took place this year!
  • Don’t be too disappointed by the limited range of foods on Saturday night (no fish, no vegetarian meals), they bring out the big culinary guns Sunday morning.

(Look out for my follow up piece to this on the St. Paul’s Halibethian Church performance)