As I’m in New York for Labor Day weekend and sitting in my living room I’m reminded of a few summers ago when every afternoon at 7pm on the dot, without fail, I’d hear the jingle jangle of steel drums, playing all the hits. My favorite? Enrique Inglesias “Bailamos.” And without fail, they’d promptly stopped at 9pm. I loved Brooklyn, I love my neighborhood, gentrified, but still solidly in it’s old flavor. Those steel drums across the street were apart of a band for the West Indian American Day parade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn on Labor Day. They even let me hop in there and play the drums for a shoot for ‘N A Perfect World. That camp is now a very ugly and very skinny new luxury building.
Years ago, when I was hoping to be a Vice correspondent, I shot a “test video” that I got really great feedback on, but unfortunately never saw. It’s not vanity that irks me as to why I never saw the video but rather that July / August of 2015 represents almost a changing of the guard in Crown Heights for me. I’m not going to debate the positives and negatives of gentrification on this post but for one day a year, on Labor Day weekend, everyone in Crown Heights… even the NYPD is unabashedly Caribbean (the joie de vivre of the NYPD today engaging freely and happily with the black community should honestly be a propaganda video for their community relations department). As things rapidly change and bougie Union Fare replaces churches and abandoned store fronts, it’s easy to smile about the conveniences, safety and forget there are beautiful facets of West Indian culture being pushed further out. That video with Malcolm Williams on July 31st, 2015 is one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done, even if I have no footage to show for it. I remember Malcolm’s words almost verbatim. He’s almost a living relic — strange considering his young age — but when remembering that interview, the dramatic soundtrack in my head plays “the times, they are, a-changing.”
When offering suggestions for themes for me to cover for Vice I immediately thought of this nod to my West Indian roots being it was July and the Mas Camps were comping out in Crown Heights for Labor Day. When I suggested it after wandering into a mas camp design studio tipsy one evening lured by the music, the casting director loved it.
I love the MASS CAMP thing. What does that mean btw? I know the West Indian Day parade of course- but what is the mass camp? I think the idea is that we want to see how you interact with people on the fly- in the street and who are not pre-arranged interviews. SO i love mass camp and if yu can get dressed up even better- and then maybe do some Man on the Street interviews with strangers? let me know- ideally we’d like to do this at 3pm on Friday? Let me know
For my ‘N A Perfect World readers, MAS Camp is short for masquerade camp. So for the parade all of those groups of people with coordinating costumes / floats are a part of different camps. The costumes are expensive; for example kids ones start at $200! Closer to the parade, the camps and their activities get bigger and bigger leading up. With my family being from the West Indies, masquerade is something I’ve always been familiar with growing up, whether it’s Crop Over in Barbados, Carnival in Trinidad or the West Indian Day parade on Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn. But we didn’t participate and I didn’t know too much about the history of it. While now, mas is a seemingly obvious connection to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Carnivale in Venice, Brazil’s Carnival, at the time, I didn’t think about how international and overarching these traditions were and how they connected. Interestingly enough, part of this could be because of my family’s Jamaican roots, which I found out though this interview with Malcom Williams at Phoenix Mas International.*
When I was a kid I really did want to play mas. I was a dancer and those costumes seemed like a natural fit, but while we would barbecue if we were in town, it just wasn’t my family’s thing.
Chatting with Malcolm and learning the history of Mas and it’s connection to Lent, suddenly it made sense why this wasn’t a big thing in Jamaica. Jamaica isn’t Catholic, it’s under the church of England so we had very different traditions surrounding spring time Lent and Ash Wednesday. There’s no Fat Tuesday as developed around Mardi Gras in French Catholic New Orleans, or some of the other islands (Barbados’ Crop Over is a tradition from slavery celebrating the end of the back breaking sugar cane harvest season).
Sometimes Jamaicans was to get a big truck for a band and make a whole heap of noise; they get Shabba, but they’re unorganized. – Malcolm
I laughed when Malcolm said that. Very Jamaican. Not apart of the tradition technically but wouldn’t be outdone.
Malcolm grew up in Panama and the tradition of Carnival / playing mas runs deep in his family. He remembers making his first masquerade face mask out of mud. Flash forward decades later (35 years) and Malcolm’s fingers and knuckles are gnarled from years of costume creation. 2015 was to be his last year before he retired. He was in and out of the hospital over the last 4 years before I met him in 2015 and had a terrible case of carpel tunnel syndrome. But to Malcolm, it was always, “one more year, one more carnival.” Malcolm does the whole carnival circuit going to Crop Over, Trinidad and a few other islands. That year they had a guest costumer from the renowned Shaka Zulu band joining them for NY’s Labor Day. Costume prep work took months and people reserved their looks with him months in advance. Malcolm weaved together fur, lace, gem stones, acrylic, papier mâché, wire and so many other materials into wearable art. A tradition he has passed down to his kids like his father did before him. Like any artist, Malcolm was protective of his art, lamenting to me about the semi-naked girls that strut down Eastern Parkway in pretty mas. I didn’t know that there was indeed a strict dresscode that had to be approved by the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. Malcolm told me that WIAD has strict control over the designs but no matter how modest his designs, there are inevitably some girls that cut holes in his work to show just a smidge more skin.
But Carnival costumes weren’t always this way as I found out later. After the on-camera interview I wrapped up with the Vice team and headed to a little cookout and costume making party Malcolm invited me to. While there, I met a University of Chicago graduate student from Trinidad who was in Brooklyn studying Carribbean immigragrion. Her family is a big mas family in Trinidad and she was able to give me so much more historial context. We delved more into Trinidad’s strong mas history, French vs. British colonies and the difference between old school mas and pretty mas. Old school mas you’ll often find on Jouvert here and there are set characters that you were playing to tell a story — sort of like Italian theatre. This is a nod and closer to the celebrations that began in Trinidad in the mid-1800s when slaves were emancipated. What we now see, “pretty mas” originated with upper-class girls in Trinidad not wanting to do something so associated with slaves and the darker and lower classes and wanted to “glam it up.” I asked her questions for hours. Pretty fascinating stuff!
Flash forward 3 years to Martinique and I found myself participating an an old mas camp complete with molasses “oil” and all!
It’s raining but we don’t care! We’re here and we’re proud to be West Indian make some noise!
Blared over the loud speakers with deafening bass. The skies opened up and the rain poured. I huddled under the umbrella of a Dominican woman next to me as we danced and smiled and commented on costumes together. Sure, the times might be changing, the neighborhood changing, but when I go on the Parkway today, I’m so proud to be of “West Indian stock.” We really are a beautiful people that can dance and smile through the worst. Can put aside differences with the NYPD and wine up on them and hug them with some real brotherly love. Through rain and shine I saw beautiful people (and the SMILES) on the Parkway living it up. And I’m sitting here in my apartment writing this and getting distracted with hit after hit blasting in the street, Bob to Buju to Biggie… I love Brooklyn.
*now defunct at this location, Phoenix Mas International was on 832 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, NY 11216
What a great West Indian Day parade