St Kitts's greatest hit

A tiny Caribbean festival is the perfect stage for Wyclef Jean, ex-Fugee, star of hip-hop and Haitian philanthropist. Ronke Phillips catches him after the show
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The Independent Culture

A slender figure, clasping a custom-made, diamond-encrusted guitar, bounces up to stage front. "We ain't frightened of the rain! You frightened of the rain?" Thousands yell: "No!"

Wyclef Jean's concert has begun. Five thousand people jump to the rhythm, punching their fists, as Jean teases them with a medley of hits from The Score, the album that catapulted him to stardom with his former band, The Fugees. And suddenly the rain stops.

It's the penultimate day of the St Kitts Music Festival, one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean. For four days every year, this island of just 36,000 people rocks.

One of the smallest and most beautiful of the Caribbean islands, St Kitts is unspoilt, with sandy coves, rainforest, lush green terrain and dormant volcanic peaks. The people are friendly, the climate tropical and the old plantation architecture still intact.

St Kitts makes enough money to support itself from its sugar-cane industry, but only just. It needs another source of income and, like many of its Caribbean neighbours, it has turned to tourism. The music festival is an important part of that.

Jean is at his decks, mixing through hip-hop versions of music of every genre - soul, reggae, blues, Latin, classical, jazz, rock, pop and then country and western. He tells the story of a collaboration he did with Kenny Rogers and plays the recording; then a sample from a studio session with Michael Jackson, recorded the day before his arrest. Jackson's voice sounds childlike and timid next to Jean's.

Then the heavy bass is back as Jean raps his way through dancehall and reggae hits. The mood reaches fever pitch.

Now in its ninth year, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in the industry: Alicia Keys, Shaggy, Hugh Masekela and Gladys Knight have all performed here. For four days, hotel lobbies are jammed as the fans of rappers, resplendent in bling, rub shoulders with country and western fans in Stetsons. Dark glasses mark out the jazz fans, who look staid next to the Rastas.

Day one consisted mainly of Caribbean bands, but the old-timers Black Stallion stole the first show. The reggae legend John Holt's set was on day two; for a man who's been in the business for four decades, he has incredible energy. Also on the bill were the 17-year-old Canadian Keshia Chanté, one to watch, and local bands Bamboo B and TOK.

A huge crowd turned out to see the US rapper Ludacris, who kept his swearing and misogynistic comments to a minimum. He'd probably been told that St Kitts is not afraid to enforce its strict decency laws. Two years ago, the American rapper DMX was arrested for swearing on stage.

Despite a big build-up, Boyz 2 Men were disappointing. The trio's voices are as good as ever, but they sang to a backing track. They should have taken a lead from the soul-funk veterans Atlantic Star, who still know how to entertain.

On paper, the odd note was the C&W legend Kenny Rogers - but he went down a storm, attracting the most multicultural audience. And the man most came to see - and all left talking about - was Wyclef Jean.

Still buzzing from his colossal performance, Wyclef Jean is trying to unwind back at his hotel. It's 5am. I'm surprised to see a huge diamond-encrusted pendant around his neck. His lyrics are, after all, passionately anti-gangster.

"I bought this as a tribute to my father, who died in 2001. The older my dad got, the more we talked. One of the last conversations I had with him was about the Lion of Judah. He told me I should always live my life like a lion, hold my head up high and be proud of who I am. So when he died, I had this pendant made. I don't always wear it but I always have it with me.

"I don't buy jewellery to show off. Every piece I have has a story behind it. Jay Z opened for The Fugees at our first ever concert and asked me for the time, and when I said I didn't have a watch, he was like, 'Hey man, go buy yourself a watch, you deserve it.'"

Material trappings don't mean much to the man responsible for the groundbreaking fusion of reggae and hip-hop. As well as rapping and singing, he produces, DJs, hosts awards ceremonies, acts in TV commercials and writes film scores - he wrote the theme for Hotel Rwanda in three days. After the success of the Fugees, who split eight years ago, he's become one of the industry's most sought-after figures.

He's released four solo albums, sings in English, Creole, French and Spanish and has collaborated with stars and musicians such as Tom Jones, Destiny's Child, The Prodigy, Simply Red, Whitney Houston, Sinead O'Connor, Mick Jagger, The Black Eyed Peas - and the New York Philharmonic.

Yet in the past year Jean's priority has been the position of young people in his native Haiti. He seems to have appointed himself his country's unofficial ambassador. Through his Yéle Haiti Foundation, the 34-year-old has given funds to build or repair 33 schools and has set up hundreds of scholarships.

"I've made so much money, it's time to put something back. With all the violence in Haiti, it's difficult for young people to get even basic schooling. The education system will not improve until the country is more stable. Haitians are due to go to the polls later this year, but I believe the country is still too divided to hold an election.

"It's tragic to think that the country where I was born, the country that nurtured my talent, is too dangerous for me to perform there. But I know that one day I will play to an audience of Haitians."

It'll be next year before fans will be able to get hold of his new album, Mardi Gras. He promises he'll continue bending and breaking nearly every hip-hop boundary there is. "I've always enjoyed experimenting and including different types of music on my albums. This one is no different, but you'll have to wait until it's released to find out who guest-stars on it."

Jean won't respond to speculation that Lauryn Hill, his Fugees sparring partner, is one of those guests, but he admits that they are in touch again. "I've always regretted The Fugees breaking up," is all he will say. When I ask if the Fugees will get back together, he smiles and asks how much an album costs to buy in the UK. "Well, start saving. You may need that money for the new album sooner than you think."

It's almost 6am, and the buzz from the concert is beginning to wear off. If he's invited, will he play at the 10th anniversary St Kitts festival next year? "I would love to come back here. I am a child of the Caribbean, and being here is like being back home."

Until now this tiny music festival that attracts giants of the industry has been patronised only by those who know. Sorry, St Kitts: your secret is out, and it looks like Wyclef Jean, for one, will be seeing you next year.

Ronke Phillips is a reporter on ITV's 'London Tonight'

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