Promoter and journalist Al Gilkes vividly remembers the horrible weather which accompanied Barbados’ Independence Day celebrations in 1966. (Picture by Sandy Pitt)
DRENCHED FROM HAIR to shoelaces, a slim youngster squinted in the dark as rain fell around him, and the sky roared noisily above.
After more than three months of preparation, he had no intention of letting a horrible thunderstorm dampen his writing on history’s page.
And what better day to see it all fall into place than the country’s birth date.
The place was the Garrison Savannah. The date was November 30, 1966 and Al Gilkes was already a household name in Barbados, having made his name first as an entertainment promoter in steel band circles, before joining the Barbados Advocate as a roving reporter.
As he wiped away rain drops from his face that evening so he could see the Broken Trident being raised for the first time in history, Al had never felt so humbled, so Barbadian, so proud.
He had been one of five Bajans chosen to be part of a special planning committee for the island’s first Independence celebrations 50 years ago, and as it all went down, the young journalist/promoter blushed with pride.
It was a day he can never replace in his memory, with blue and yellow rushing through his veins as patriots filled every available spot opposite St Ann’s Fort.
“I always remember how much it rained at the Garrison. It was a really dark night,” Gilkes told the SUNDAY SUN during a recent interview about the role he played in helping prepare Barbados’ first birthday event. “There was thunder and lightning. There was mud everywhere, but not a man moved,” he recalled.
“I remember it had also rained all day, but thousands of Barbadians still turned out for the ceremony. It was something they didn’t want to miss. And when they got there, they didn’t want to move even as the conditions deteriorated.”
Dancing in downpour
Al Gilkes showing the paperwork which he received after being invited to be part of a planning committee for the country’s first Independence.
He recalled that in spite of the downpour thousands still danced around the Garrison, and then down to Bay Street on Independence night.
For Al, the pathway to independence had all started three months earlier when he received a letter inviting him to be part of a committee tasked with helping prepare entertainment for the island’s first Independence Day celebrations.
Also on that committee was up-and-coming deejay Vic “Buddy Boy” Brewster from the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Senator Sage White (chairman), broadcaster Frank Pardo, tourism administrator Paul Foster, and the deputy commissioner of police.
Gilkes noted that two years prior to the celebrations, the Barbados carnival had ceased, but that he had continued to play an integral role in arranging steel band clashes and other musical events, which led to his inclusion on the preparatory committee.
He remembers the excitement amongst his committee members after they had been chosen to participate in the first Independence celebrations.
“It was really difficult to put into words how we felt about the part we played, but we were very excited. We had worked feverishly throughout, and no one had missed a meeting as the day approached. A week out, we felt all the necessary holes had been plugged. We were ready.”
According to Gilkes, the pouring rain on Independence Day was a “bit of a damper” but did not in any way diminish the spirit of patriotism felt by people he rubbed shoulders with.
Al was on double duty that November 30, as along with being part of the planning committee, he also covered the event for the country’s main newspaper at the time, alongside friends, photographers Gordon Brooks and Paul Mandeville.
“I had a front seat, and we felt we were all part of history at the time,” he told the SUNDAY SUN.
But the action didn’t stop there.
The next day, Gilkes was again involved in planned celebrations, as the country geared up for a highly anticipated concert headlined by US pop group The Supremes.
“At the time, The Supremes was the number one female group in the world and was a serious main act,” he said. “It was equivalent to a concert today starring Rihanna or Beyonce. On Independence night they had done a small performance for dignitaries at the Hilton, but all of Barbados was looking forward to the next day’s event at Independence Square.”
But things didn’t go as planned on December 1, something Gilkes considers the only flaw to an otherwise perfectly planned Independence celebration.
The Supremes entered for their concert on a small boat through the Careenage, and less than a half hour into their performance wharfside, bedlam ensued amongst the large crowd on hand.
“Where the water meets the cement at the Careenage, there were no barriers at the time,” Gilkes explained. “So the thousands who were up front found themselves in the midst of a surge from those behind them who wanted to get a glimpse of the band. The people at the front started to push back, and that’s how the bedlam started,” Gilkes recalled.
In the midst of all that was happening, the concert ended abruptly, and the band members had to be put back on the boat and taken away to safety.
“I remember quite a few young people were involved. In those days there were bread vendors selling from carts along the area that is now Heroes Square, and the rioters started throwing bread all around Bridgetown.”
Gilkes noted that prior to the concert he felt uneasy about the amount of people that would have been in Independence Square at the time, and chose to watch the action from a nearby bar at the end of Bay Street.
“That was the only thing that went wrong surrounding the Independence Day celebrations. I’m glad to see the feeling being ramped up again now. The pride from 1966 lingered for a very long time, and then diminished over time, but I notice it picking up again for this 50th anniversary celebrations,” Gilkes said. (BA)