Once a year, Hartford’s riverfront reimagines itself. It shape-shifts into a sunny slice of Boston Bay on Jamaica’s east coast, where jerk chefs man stall after stall, allspice wood smoke billows from huge charcoal drums, and the smell of thyme, scallions, Scotch bonnet peppers and fresh ginger overwhelms the nose as reggae music rattles from loudspeakers.
You can almost close your eyes and picture it: Adults strolling by, pulling on bottles of Carib beer or a shandy concoction, cooling their pepper-addled tongues while the kids laugh and play. Everyone’s dancing or “liming” (hanging around), and there’s nowhere to hurry off to. It’s perfect.
Now in its seventh year, Hartford’s Taste of the Caribbean & Jerk Festival might be the only chance left this summer to immerse oneself in island culture. Founder and organizer Leslie Perry, a retired Hartford elementary school teacher, said he came up with the idea for the festival in 2005, at a meeting with fellow retirees who wanted to do something special for Hartford and its surroundings. “We wanted to figure out how to pull people together and let Hartford shine in a better way,” Perry said. A native of Jamaica, Perry suggested a Caribbean festival, but the others balked, citing the various difficulties involved with staging a major event.
Perry ran with the idea; he wanted to do something on the riverfront, to capitalize on the energy of other civic projects taking shape there at the time. “I knew there was a large Caribbean community in Hartford and that it would catch on,” he said. “Some people said it would not work, but now people come from all over... It’s like being in the Caribbean without the airfare.”
It’s certainly the place to go if you want to sample jerk, one of the world’s great grilling traditions and a source of national pride, both back home in Jamaica and stateside. There’ll be 25 or so food vendors preparing authentic jerk chicken and other dishes on charcoal grills and smokers. “Jerk,” from the Spanish version of a Quechua word for dried meat, originated with Jamaica’s Taino Indians, who smoked wild pigs in dugout pits, adopting the in-ground cooking methods of the Maroons (African slaves who broke free of their captors), imbuing the meat with a blend of herbs and heat. The ideal jerk is hot, yes, but also savory, with a balance of flavors ranging from spicy to herbal. Of all the items you can sample at the festival — roti, curried goat, empanadas and flying fish, as well as sides of rice and peas, sweet potatoes and various starches — jerk’s one of the few that’s almost entirely derived from African and indigenous cooking traditions.
Jamaican culture, of course, isn’t the only one represented at Perry’s festival. It’s a pan-Caribbean affair, with food, music, games and traditions from Trinidad and Tobago, east to Barbados and Grenada, northwest to Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, and just about everywhere in between. Musical acts include the return of Trinidad’s Calypso Rose, otherwise known as the “Lioness of the Jungle”; Jamaican musicians Leroy Sibbles and Don Minott (a transplant who lives in Hartford); various roots-reggae ensembles, including the Amandla Band, the Angels Caribbean Band, Anthem, the multi-lingual ReBelle, the Hartford Steel Symphony and Toussaint the Liberator; and plenty of others. The festival has grown in size over the years. It’s no longer just Perry’s modest project; now there’s a board of directors and countless volunteers.
Perry estimates around 10,000 people will wander in and around the festival grounds at various times of day. “People just pass through,” he said. “The food is in the air, there’s music on the upper and lower stage.” Then, Perry said, there are the die-hards who arrive in the evening for what he called the “heavy headliners.” “It’s really a program of the food, the music and culture: the French, English and Caribbean culture, the Haitian, the Spanish merengue, the soca and calypso from Trinidad, Jamaican reggae. There’s a mini carnival. It’s very family-friendly.”
It’s a lot to pull off when you don’t charge admission. “If it was a paid event, there’s a lot more I could do,” Perry admitted. “There was recently one in New York that charged $35 to go in, and they had 10,000 people. They have the extra money to bring the kinds of artist who bring out the people. Later when the crowd gets thick, it would be great to get video screens so that people in the back can see the show. We could rent that equipment.”
Still, Perry said, “It’s a great event.” He deliberately brought back Calypso Rose, who performed last year and blew everyone away. “She’s an outstanding performer. She looks so quiet and simple, but when she gets on stage she comes alive. You don’t know where that energy comes from.”
Taste of the Caribbean & Jerk Festival, Aug. 4, 1-11 p.m., free, Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, Downtown Hartford, (860) 306-1693, tastect.org
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