Henri-Olivier Michaux: “Along with Avignon, our festival is one of the last French multidisciplinary festivals”

The Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021. It is one of the oldest festivals in the Caribbean.

The coronavirus did nothing to upset the 49th edition of the Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France that takes place from July 4 to 28. Swaré bèlè, digital evening, concert by Jocelyne Béroard, exhibitions at the Manufacture and a big cenacle about the “unblocking” of statues in Martinique and around the world will be among the events offered this year despite health restrictions and a reduced budget.

Kariculture met Henri-Olivier Michaux, in charge of cultural development for the city of Fort-de-France in Martinique. He takes stock of this particular edition whose theme is “Entre nous” (Among ourselves).

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France 2A
Henri-Olivier Michaux, in charge of cultural development for the city of Fort-de-France (Martinique)

Kariculture.net : How was the Fort-de-France Cultural Festival born?

Henri-Olivier Michaux : Aimé Césaire, then mayor of Fort-de-France, created the Service Municipal d’Action Culturelle (Municipal Cultural Action Service) to give the working classes access to cultural education. To this day, there are various artistic workshops and rates are very affordable. Over the years, disciplines such as computer music and graphic design were added.

Initially, the festival, created in 1972, was a way to show what the workshops had developed during the year. Then Aimé Césaire went further, he used it to bring in international companies from Africa, Asia and Europe to allow people from working-class neighbourhoods to see shows they would never have had the opportunity to see otherwise, and at ridiculous prices.

Each mayor then initiated a new event within the festival. Jazz Night was born under the mandate of Serge Letchimy, Carnaval des Arts under that of Raymond Saint-Louis-Augustin and Manufacture, the latest addition, will be the legacy of Didier Laguerre. The teams were rejuvenated since then. We tried to bring a touch of modernity while retaining the essence of the festival.

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France - Kalash 6C
Kalash’s concert

Kariculture.net : Who are your festival-goers?

H.O.M. : Efforts are made to have events that concern everyone : events for the whole family, for young people, jazz lovers, theatre lovers etc… We even offer religious events. For those who like conferences and intellectual exchanges, there are cenacles. We were missing festival-goers who are fond of out-of-the-ordinary performances. So we created the Manufacture, a kind of laboratory for the festival. Artists from very different backgrounds are invited to work together on artistic projects. Last year, we associated singer Miki Debrouya with guitarist Nicolas lossen and beatboxer Ven.

Along with Avignon, our festival is one of the last French multidisciplinary festivals. There is theatre, visual arts, music, dance and lectures.

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France 5D

Kariculture.net : Does the festival represent a tourist asset?

H.O.M. : The festival is not intended to be a tourist product. If we wanted it to be, it would take place in March and would be concentrated over one week. It’s a festival for the Martinicans, it’s a choice. So they don’t need to take a plane or a boat to see international artists. It is also intended for Martinican students or expatriates who return in July-August and who are often in search of their culture.

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France 13E

Kariculture.net : You insisted on keeping this edition when many other festivals decided to cancel, why?

H.O.M. : We really wanted to do this 49th edition because next year is the 50th anniversary, and we want to celebrate the 50th edition with great pomp! So we had to find a way to organize the festival this year, by bending to the health context.

Normally, the festival lasts three weeks and there are one or two events a day, which means about forty events during the festival. Seven or eight different sites are usually used : the Fort-de-France districts, Aimé Césaire Theatre, Grand Carbet, La Savane, Malecon and more rarely the large covered market and the square in front of the old town hall.

The festival’s budget is 1.2 million euros normally. This year we got a third of it, or 400,000 euros. We kept the same duration, three weeks, but there are gaps. Twelve events are planned and will mainly take place at the Aimé Césaire Park and at the Guédon Kiosk.

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France - Macaire 10F
Lecture by Monsignor Macaire, Bishop of Martinique

Kariculture.net : What measures have you taken regarding Covid-19?

H.O.M. : We reduced the capacity of the Aimé Césaire Park to 2,500 people, which is usually set at 6,000 people. No furniture will be installed so that safety distances can be respected. The hydro-alcoholic gel and mask will be mandatory at the entrance and to circulate inside the park. We rely on the civic-responsability and common sense of the festival-goers.

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France - Kalash 8G
Martinican singer Kalash

Kariculture.net : What will be the highlights?

H.O.M. : The highlight of this edition is the Symposium held from July 23 to 24 on the Malecon. It’s an XXL cenacle. For the first time, a theme will be discussed over two days instead of one. It is about the “unblocking” of statues in Martinique and around the world. We invited speakers from here and from France. This is the moment that everyone is waiting for and also the scary moment, because the subject is delicate. Many people will certainly want to speak. It will therefore be necessary to have a particular mastery of the microphone to respect barrier gestures! Even if you’re not a fan of cenacles, I think you should not miss this one.

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France 14H

Kariculture.net : What is your artistic crush this year?

H.O.M. : Titof, the guest artist to the youth party. It’s a personal choice, my colleagues don’t know him (laughs). He’s one of those artists who deplore not performing at home. We must tell the truth, some lyrics are quite raw or violent sometimes but I think that we must not repress, whatever the art. From the moment the work has found its audience, I consider it legitimate. In his last album he showed that he can do something other than talking about the street or using invective.

It bothers me when I see our Martinican artists getting more recognition elsewhere. Here we bring in Jamaicans all year round who say the same things in their music, we just don’t understand anything. So we think it’s more legitimate than we do.

I take responsibility for this programming. We’ll show everyone that young people can come and enjoy music by an artist from popular districts in Fort-de-France without any problems. We invited Kalash, why not Titof?

Festival Culturel de Fort-de-France 15

Kariculture.net : Do you have anecdotes to tell us about your experience at the festival?

H.O.M. : I remember jumping into the water in front of the crowd on the Malecon, because a sea scooter had overturned in water. That was 6 years ago, during a Francky Zapata’s light Flyboard show. We were among the first to invite him to perform. Then he became known through the show Incroyable Talent. Last year he flew over the Champs Elysée on July 14, at the president’s request.

Another important moment for me was the tribute to DJ Jom’x on La Savane last year. I told a small word for him in front of 40,000 people. Usually I don’t have any difficulty expressing myself in public, but this time it was special…

Otherwise we also have artists with particular desires we will not reveal… Once we had to repaint a hotel room because the artist wanted a particular colour on the walls. We have to satisfy them if it’s legal of course. If they are not in an optimal state of mind when they go on stage, they will not give the best of themselves.