Open Mouth and Story Jump Out: 19th Annual St. John Folk Life Festival

Mario Benjamin keeps the age old skill of net weaving alive.

Young students danced to rhythmic drumming in the shadow of the sugar mill ruins as the 19th Annual St. John Folk Life Festival got underway on Thursday, February 25, at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins under a bright blue sky.

The idea of V.I. National Park ranger Denise Georges since its inception almost 20 years ago, the St. John Folk Life Festival is a much-anticipated event for the island’s students, visitors and residents alike.

This year’s theme “Virgin Islands Culture 2010” focused on storytelling, songs and music in the ever-vibrant Creole tradition.
Exhibitors at the festival displayed a variety of locally made crafts and traditionally prepared foods. Old-time cooking pots full of fresh fish simmered over St. John-made charcoal.


Mario Benjamin sat facing the water knitting a traditional bait net, his hands never stopping for long as his needles clicked back and forth.

“Not too many people know how to do this still,” said Benjamin. “My father taught me and I started from when I was about 10.”
While Benjamin showed off his wooden needles in various sizes — for making different sizes of mesh depending on what type of bait one is looking to catch — he used more modern metal needles for the net he was working on during the festival.

All told, it will take Benjamin about four and a half months to complete the net and, thanks to the nylon material strongly stitched with the metal needles, he expects the device to last more than a decade.

“It will take four to four and a half months with me working on it every day before I finish,” said Benjamin. “With my material and all, this one should last a good 12 years without needing any repairs.”

Nearby Justin Todman showed off his collection of brooms made from date palms which grow wild across the Virgin Islands. From four-inch-tall table dusters to full sized sweepers, Todman had a broom to meet all needs.

“I’ve been making brooms from the age of six,” said Todman. “It took me two months to make my first broom, but I’m a good bit faster now.”

Olabayo Olaniyi gets the laid-back island crowd energized.

For each broom Todman delicately cuts, strips and dries individual palm leaves, a process that can take up to five days. He then shapes each broom and creates a handle from local wood.

“This is my hobby and more,” said Todman. “I love to do this.”

Elizabeth Aubain sat in the shade of the old Annaberg cook house as her deft fingers wove an 11-straw plait that would eventually  become a bracelet. Aubain displayed her collection of purses, wallets, rings and bracelets all plaited by hand out of various nylon-like materials.

Yolanda Morten, Les Anderson, Delroy “Ital” Anthony and Sonia Sprauve were just a few of other local crafts people and artists who shared their particular talents at the Folk Life Festival, from stewed tamarind to watercolor paintings.

Eddie Bruce, Anthony and Wanda kept the beat going most of the afternoon, drumming on several drums and getting many students to join in the rhythm. Students were also treated to several old time stories from Dr. Gilbert Sprauve and calypso tunes from the revered Chester “The Mighty Groover” Brady.

Delroy “Ital” Anthony’s hand-crafted mocko jumbies are whimsical and beautiful.

Nigerian-native Olabayo Olaniyi entertained the crowd with passionate drumming, and alternatively humorous and frightening sketches as he embodied a jumbie and shared tales.

Looking over the students’ faces in crowd, Georges deemed her work a success yet again.

“The first day is always a challenge with trying to get everyone here on time and get started,” she said. “But everything is running smoothly and the children are enjoying themselves. I say we did it.”

The 19th Annual Folk Life Festival continued on Friday, February 26, and on Saturday night, February 27.

For the first time this year, students were separated into age groups, with younger children joining the festival on Thursday and older ones on Friday.

“Having the little ones come by themselves has really worked out well,” said Georges. “We don’t have them all mixed up together.”
The Saturday night festivities drew an older crowd who gathered under a full moon to hear from Olaniyi and Groover and enjoy traditional drumming.