Dr. Rhoda Arrindell, St. Martin Day, Cultural Awards to working artists by Lasana M. Sekou

The biggest St. Martin Day ever!" is how Glenfield Gipson gleefully described the only annual "official" island-wide celebration. St. Martin Day celebrates the nation’s historical unity and the cultural dynamism of all of its people as One St. Martin Family.


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Radio personality Gipson was speaking to the eager listeners of the long-running Adventures in Book Land children’s program on November 12. It was the day after St. Martin Day.

Well into the week following the complex of festivities led by Dr. Rhoda Arrindell, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs – with what turned out to be an irrepressible committee put together by her ministry, St. Martin Day 2011 is still the talk of the town.

The committee, which from an almost too calm-looking start rose undaunted to the occasion to make a nation proud, consisted of Fabiana Arnell, Urmain "Youmay" Dormoy, Lisa Coffi, Thierry Gumbs, Cassandra Janssen, Maria van Heyningen, and its chairman Neville York.

The St. Martin Day talk is still about the Unity Parade, numbering, according to parade manager Dormoy, no less than 1,000 participants, which fashioned a mass exuberance of colors, sound, and "look people" that claimed the Frontstreet and WJA Nisbeth Road like a spectacular flood tide.

The talk is about the non-stop "who put that together so, boy" performances on the Festival Village stage. The talk is about how people just kept coming to the village, filling the place to the brim, as if folks were on some sort of a pilgrim’s progress to find an imaginative homeground to be with each other (it doesn’t escape me for a second that this Village in located on the Great Salt Pond, historical Cradle of the Nation).

The "talk" will continue and vary until overtaken very soon by the coming yearend holidays. Whatever challenges the organizers might have faced, on St. Martin Day these were dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of excitement and variety of activities and movement of thousands of people generated and sustained from morning to midnight, to the burst of fireworks signaling the end of the beloved day.

Michael Ferrier once told of flying up the Caribbean chain one Old Year’s night and how, looking out the small plane’s window, he could see that St. Martin was the only island "spitting fire" into the sky around midnight.

I inject the "spitting fire" imagery to say that, while New Year’s Eve in St. Martin is nothing to trifle with, (and it is yet to dawn on us), it can be wagered that as far as joyous and spectacular mass gatherings in one general public place go, there would be only three major festivals of record nation-wide for 2011. Mardi Gras, St. Maarten Carnival, and St. Martin Day.

For an island with a fervent festive and entertainment culture "tha’ doan sleep" (starting way before the tourism boom, back then with barely over 8,000 people); and now with a population of arguably over 100,000 people (including unregistered folks), St.Martin Day 2011 has made massive history.

Talking of making history, a defining high point of the nation’s day was the presentation of the first St. Martin Day Cultural Awards by Minister Rhoda Arrindell to six outstanding artists.

What was genuinely impressive about the awardees is that 99% of them have long been working fulltime in their fields. This is a profoundly telling socioeconomic aspect of a toughly gained progress on this island, in areas without an abundance of classic benefactors, major investors or political godfathers.

Shujah Reiph and I often speak of a certain courage among artists, particularly those in entertainment who risk it all, while raising their families, to work full time in the hotel, casino, restaurant, and concert circuit. Pioneers like the late "Butcher" and Ray Anthony Thomas, Sr. and those who picked up the gauntlet between the late eighties and into the mid-1990s like King Beau Beau, come to mind.

This first batch of honorees of the award that will hopefully become an institution of distinction, has set a high bar by their continuing in-the-field productivity, consistently growing professionalism, and creative excellence.

The award itself is a sort of crowning glory to this unprecedented St. Martin Day celebration, and to the historical spirit of a day that, if it is still reaching for its fullest meaning, is reaching for a natural destiny of all nations: "sovereign equality." Here the applause for the decision to respond to a clear and consistent message encapsulated in the day’s theme, for the very triumphant St. Martin Day 2011, goes to the people.

Minister Arrindell has been refreshingly consistent too since taking office in October 2010, and not without prickled controversy. Her statements; the unaccustomed sobering addresses in Parliament; and what might be a Promethean task of orienting policy to the critical developmental meaning and liberating role of culture and education, seeks to test and advance the territory’s limited autonomous status.

Language, education, "national symbols" are no longer hidden or play-safe issues.

If this alone would be her legacy, hurrah!

Beyond the territory’s borders is Dr. Arrindell’s open embracing, as a true St.Martin daughter of new birth, recent arrival or long lineage should do, of the island’s people as one nation. Her language is culture and not the colony’s language of political schizophrenia that Frantz Fanon so expertly forewarned us all about. This latter position of Dr. Arrindell, precedes her taking office by some 20 years.

There is a sense that it is really the comingling of these positions at governmental level that are troubling to some, causing some detractors to call Rhoda out of her name, some with passive aggressive tones and others taking open potshots, try to malign her family’s working people’s pedigree and village (a no-no in Traditional St. Martin ethics).

But Dr. Arrindell comes in the spitfire tradition of Caribbean womanhood. She can pick up, train, and take home children from weekly volleyball practice with the same "flow" that she so elegantly represented the territory’s associate membership of UNESCO last month.

This St. Martin Day Cultural Award has all the markings of the minister’s consistency thus far. To genuinely invest in the working ethos and striving for excellence in culture, education, and sports; harness progressive traditions that are usually and purposely marginalized by the establishment; and embrace as a natural way of life a cultural vision of "One Island, One People, One Destiny."

Here Dr. Arrindell can speak for herself: "The activities of this day would have been incomplete if we did not … recognize and honor some of our cultural workers for their outstanding work."

The minister then proceeded to grant the first St. Martin Day Cultural Awards to six leading artistes on the Festival Village stage on November 11 as the St Martin Day activities warmed up to a crescendo.

Broadway star, Nicole de Weever, who was named St. Martin Cultural Ambassador on World Tourism Day in 2009, was honored again for her groundbreaking work in dance. De Weever is a featured dancer in the award-winning, Broadway hit musical, FELA! Her sister received the award on her behalf since she is at present on tour with this much-applauded production.

Clara Reyes, another dancer, renowned choreographer and teacher, who founded one of the island’s leading dance schools, the Imbali Center for Dance and Creative Movement, was the next recipient of the St. Martin Day Cultural Award. Reyes, whose name has become synonymous with dance on the island, had also been honored earlier this year by Queen Beatrix of the Dutch kingdom.

Leading the next four awardees – all musicians – was Lino Hughes, "Founder and bandleader of the legendary group, Lino and the Hardways, which took the entire region by storm in the 80s," according to his citation. The citation added that "Lino Hughes also wrote the inspirational song, ‘St. Martin is My Home’ from which the theme of this year’s St. Martin Day celebration – ‘One island, One People, One Destiny’ is taken."

The Youth Wave Band, celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, was praised for its "staying power" and for being "trail-blazers with their innovative sound." Led by Patricio "Patou" Piper, the band has produced such big hits as "Move to the right, move to the left," "Big truck," and "Reverse" among a long list. Alex Piper received the St.Martin Day Cultural Award from Minister Rhoda Arrindell on behalf of the band.

Celebrating his 35th year in the field of kaiso, Clement "Kaiso Brat" Richards received the St. Martin Day Cultural Award "For a lifetime of outstanding contribution to the art form of Kaiso." Brat, also known as "Emperor Brat" and "Mr Lyrics," was the founder of the "legendary Cool Creations, out of which came so many other frontline St. Martin musicians," according to his citation.

Finally came Isidore "The Mighty Dow" York, considered one of the most honored artistes on the island. Dow was cited for his "consistency, dedication, innovation, and pride in his work." His citation read in part that "Dow struck gold with his St. Maarten Rumba, the only song by a St. Martiner to have been nominated for a Grammy Award, the Latin Grammy Award." People still remember his 15th Anniversary concert dubbed, "How Great Dow Art" held at the Great Bay Sports Auditorium. Dow this year also received an international Lifetime Achievement Award in Trinidad, along with the Calypso King of the World, The Mighty Sparrow.

According to Minister Rhoda Arrindell, "what is common to all of the awardees is their undeniable talent, their commitment to excellence and the pride they have always shown in their island wherever they may be performing."

The Minister further explained that "The St. Martin Day Cultural Awards is a simple way of saying thank you to all of them, on behalf of the people of St. Martin, for doing us proud."

"It is a token of love and appreciation, on my part, as Minister of Culture," Dr. Rhoda Arrindell added.

Take a bow, Dr. Rhoda Arrindell; take a bow the St. Martin Day Organizing Committee and the six well-honored sons and daughters of this Sweet Land.