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Why Bermuda needs Chewstick

It's never just been a venue for music, poetry readings and the visual and performing arts. Far from it.

Since its inception the Chewstick Foundation has always been both a cultural hub and a thriving meeting place for young Bermudian artists.

It's a creative space where ideas can germinate and blossom in an encouraging and nurturing environment.

It's also laboratory for new talent where anyone can experiment, collaborate, practice and perform.

And, perhaps most importantly, the Chewstick Foundation has provided a much needed sense of community for young Bermudians who must necessarily labour alone so much of the time in order to perfect their skills and realise their artistic visions.

Since embarking on what was originally envisaged as a modestly-scaled community arts project 13 years ago, Chewstick principals Gavin Djata Smith and Deidra Lee-Bean have seen the foundation evolve into a valued and much-loved Bermudian cultural institution.

It was only in May that Chewstick moved in to its first ever purpose-designed premises. The intimate and inviting Front Street venue was completed thanks to a major refurbishment involving hundreds of volunteer man-hours given freely by members along with the financial backing of any number of sponsors and other supporters.

Celebrated Bermudian reggae/folk artist Mishka, a longtime booster, returned home from touring to officially open Chewstick's new home with a solo acoustic show and was joined onstage for an encore by his sister, indie rock icon Heather Nova.

This musical ribbon-cutting was an agreeably low-key and characteristically mellow affair. Nevertheless, the renowned siblings' joint appearance amounted to an all-star salute for the Chewstick mission — both a vote of confidence in its future and a thank you for all of its past work identifying and encouraging young Bermudian talent.

After such an auspicious beginning, no one could possibly imagine what lay just ahead. But less than two months later the Chewstick lounge was quite literally reduced to cinders when a major fire tore through the building which housed it.

Once they overcame their initial shock, Chewstick organisers quickly began to pursue plans for relocating and rebuilding while continuing as many of their projects as is feasible in the interim. They correctly believe the foundation is an idea, not a physical place. And their overarching commitment to this ideal, along with their resolve, enthusiasm and optimism, augurs well for Chewstick in the arduous days ahead.

But they cannot achieve all of their goals without the support of a wider community which benefits every bit as much from Chewstick's existence as its members and most loyal audience members do.

President Kennedy famously remarked that “the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the centre of a nation's purpose — and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilisation”.

He was absolutely right. And his rule of thumb applies every bit as much to a micro-nation like Bermuda as it is does to much larger countries.

Here as elsewhere the arts enhance and enrich our existence. They provide a focus for — and a celebration of — our common cultural identity; an infinitely rich language through which we can express our hopes and our fears, our desires and our concerns; and are essential to maintaining our very character as a community.

Simply put, the diversity and vitality of programmes like those spearheaded by Chewstick contribute to Bermuda's wellbeing and overall quality of life in ways too numerous to mention, with the various forms of personal artistic expression the foundation encourages serving to strengthen social bonds and cement community cohesion.

The arts are not a luxury to be enjoyed by a privileged few, they are an absolute necessity in any healthy society. And it would be heartening to think as many Bermudians as possible will support ongoing fundraising efforts — including tonight's concert at the Somers Building on Front Street — to assist Chewstick to rebound from its recent adversity.

Painted in swirling rainbow letters on a plywood panel now covering the entrance to its fire-gutted former home is the simple but compelling message: “Bermuda needs Chewstick.”

And the undeniable reality is, “Yes, we do.”

Chewstick visionaries: Deidra Lee-Bean and Gavin Djata Smith (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published September 02, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated September 02, 2016 at 6:51 am)

Why Bermuda needs Chewstick

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