Barbados is not only the birthplace of Rihanna, it also happens to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Their year-round climate of near perfect temperatures, beautiful beaches and rich musical culture makes the small predominantly Christian island one of the most wholesome and welcoming places you could ever visit. The island itself is only 166 sq miles but within this small circumference of land lives a very healthy and happy population.
While visiting the island at the end of peak tourism season for the Barbados Gospelfest I’m reminded that finding a balance is the key to life’s simple pleasures. The duality most visibly at play while ripping around one balmy afternoon in a safari jeep through narrow streets and lush forest trails is between the country’s origins as the birthplace of rum and its strong religious roots. This might explain why that for every church there are three rum shops, almost always within close proximity. An integral part of Bajan history, there are reportedly more than 1500 rum shops throughout the island and, according to my driver, are particularly utilized following funerals as host locations for celebrations of life. Sunday service and the celebration of God is taken very seriously in most pockets of Barbados and that’s because faith is the cornerstone of the island’s ethos.
With faith on the top of the docket, the Barbados Gospelfest has provided a unique celebration of music and spirituality for the past 26 years, giving rise to a relatively new and underrepresented genre of tourism — Wholesome tourism.
“In the early ’90s there was concern of the possibility of casino gambling coming to the island so the then-minister of tourism, Wes Hall, wanted to promote what he coined as wholesome tourism in an effort to bring people to the island during a season when there weren’t as many tourists,” says Barbados Gospelfest’s executive producer Adrian R. Agard. And so it was that Gospelfest was born and under his watchful eye it has been evolving throughout the years.
The 2018 Gospelfest invited acts from North America such as the Billboard chart-topping act JJ Hairston and Youthful Praise and the real life sister trio, V3, from Atlanta, GA but also encourages and supports involvement from the local music scene. In fact the backing band for a few of the non-island acts was comprised of some extremely talented and versatile local players.
“The vision is still to do a festival that impacts and shapes the community,” Agard says. “People see music as music, yes. But music also has an impact on people’s lives. The type of music you listen to impacts the things you do. So this festival is intended to have a positive impact on people’s lives — Touching Lives, Changing Nations.”
“Gospel is one thing that binds a lot of the island together,” says Robert Chase, director of marketing for Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. We are speaking together backstage at one of the festival’s events called Laughter & Jazz, an event sponsored by Capita Financial that brings comedy and music together for a night of praise and celebration for the big guy upstairs. At one point in the evening Houston comedian Marcus D. Wiley walks on stage and asks, “Is this a church crowd or a club crowd?” The audience, quickly in unison, shouts back, “A church crowd!” If there was ever a better segue into a comedy bit doomed for failure, I’d like to hear it. But the comedian did his best to unleash his best PG-rated “church vs. nightclub” comparisons for the conservative crowd. The difference between wholesome tourism and wholesome comedy is that wholesome comedy doesn’t always land well, but it was nice to see a different component at play, balancing out all of the contemporary gospel and r&b being showcased.
If you’re gonna fly all the way across the world to cover a gospel festival you have to do it with your mind and eyes wide open. After all, a little hallelujah never hurt nobody. There were plenty of hallelujahs at Laughter & Jazz, just as there were at the festival’s Tuesday night celebrations for Hymnspeak. With 700+ people packed into the historic St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Bridgetown on this hot and humid night, festivalgoers assumed their very familiar role of a congregation. Windows open and the sound of fans buzzing faintly in the background, Agard welcomed everyone before the enigmatic reverend led the parishioners through a journey of hymns and testimonies from various members of different churches around the island. One of the elderly Bajan ladies who was sitting beside me grabbed my hand and raised it in unison with hers as the congregation shouted their praises for the blood of Jesus — It’s in us all you know? — while singing a hymn from 1876, “What Can Wash Away My Sin?” Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Harrison’s Cave is one of God’s splendid creations and a great place to feel like an explorer from the comfort of a guided tram that takes you to the depths (160-feet deep to be exact) of one of nature’s most spectacular sights. Down here you will see naturally forming calcium deposits. Unlike other islands, Barbados is not volcanic but composed of deep ocean sediments overlaid by coral limestone. Created over thousands of years, acidic water dissolved limestone away, creating these magnificent structures deep below ground level. Because of the unique coral limestone foundation, the water on the island is filtered in a natural way. Therefore the drinking water quality in Barbados is one of the best in the Caribbean.
Just on the outskirts of Bridgetown sits Rihanna Drive, a recently commemorated street, home to the house that Barbados’ shining diamond grew up. It’s rumored that she was recently back home for a visit and that’s she’s still very lovely. Other than sugarcane and that tasty Mount Gay Rum, Riri is indeed the country’s most talked about export.
Eating locally is easily one of the most rewarding things about visiting the island and if you’re doing it right, fish is on the menu. From the authentic jazz themed Waterfront Cafe in Bridgetown (make sure you try their flying fish with fried plantains) to Oistins Fish Fry, a truly community event every Friday on the south coast of the island, there’s no shortage of delicious seafood fare to take advantage of.
The Barbados Gospelfest is most certainly blessed by the grace of God. Jesus does take the front seat, as you might expect, but regardless of your faith it’s a fantastic way to interact with the locals over the course of a full week in a positive light. If Agard’s vision of the festival is true, it will likely leave a lasting impression on you and perhaps even help you discover elements of your own faith you didn’t know existed.
“I would like to feel that a person who comes to the festival is able to get a better understanding of who they are and what God wants to do with them,” says Agard. “Ultimately the objective of our music is to draw people closer to God. We feel that we are created by God and we believe that if we get to connect with Him then we can better do what it is that He wants us to do.”