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Culture on Display at the West Indian American Carnival

West Indian American Carnival Queen

The Labor Day weekend means one thing to New York’s West Indian American community: the West Indian American Carnival! Now in its 46th year, the Carnival bills itself as the greatest carnival in North America. It is perhaps New York’s largest cultural festival.

The celebration of carnival began in the 1920s as a private event among the West Indian communities in Harlem. It became an official event in 1947, when a Trinidadian woman received a permit from the city to organize a street festival on Labor Day. In 1964, the city revoked the permit because of a disturbance at one event.

The festival resumed in 1969, in a new location – Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway – perhaps following the migration of West Indians from Harlem. It also had an organizing committee, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, which, under the 32-year stewardship of Carlos Lezama grew into the signature event it is today.

The West Indian American Carnival, 2013

Each year, the carnival kicks off on Thursday with a music festival, featuring some of the region’s popular entertainers. On Friday, there’s a Youth Fest and a Brass Fest; and a Junior Carnival Parade and Panorama Steelband Competition on Saturday. Fat Sunday (Dimanche Gras) features the winner of the steelband competition as well as the king and queen costume winners.

West Indian American Carnival Queen

Taking photos with the queen

And on Labor Day Monday, the activities come to a grand finale with parade which attracts elected officials – the Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, has been the grand master for the last several years – business leaders, members of the Caribbean diplomatic corps and between one and three million people. They line the Eastern Parkway parade route from Schenectady Avenue to Grand Army Plaza enjoying Caribbean food, the many floats, costumed bands, and the sounds of Soca, Reggae, Zouk, Kompa, Salsa and Calypso.

Junior Carnival, West Indian American Carnival

Watching the Junior or Kiddie Carnival

Like most West Indians, I look forward to carnival and have spent many a Labor Day on the Parkway. Had it not been for my not-totally-back-to-normal-ankle, I would have been there this year. The junior carnival was a good compromise as I’d never been and I was curious to see the youngsters do their thing. Yes, carnival is not only for the adults.

Junior Carnival, West Indian American Carnival

Junior Carnival

It was nearly 2 pm when I arrived at the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum station. As I exited the subway, I was surprised to see several parents and their costumed youngsters waiting to board. Was the carnival finished? I was relieved when one mom said her daughter had already performed and they were going home to rest. Outside the station, more people were sitting on benches near the museum’s entrance or milling around.

I followed the sound of soca music to the area behind the museum where the carnival was taking place. There were food vendors, face painters and people, lots of people, flags waving, flags tied on their wrists, or dressed in the colors of their respective flags. There was pride and excitement in the air.

There were only a few bleacher seats and they were already taken so I joined a group of people standing partially under the shade of a large tree. But I was so far back, I could hardly see the stage when the different camps danced and paraded before the judges, without raising myself on to my toes – something I could have done easily pre-accident. I was lucky to get a few photos. I’ll just have to get there earlier next time.

Linking up this week with Travel Photo Thursday, which Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox organizes.

The Tambourine in Jamaican Culture

Tambourine in Jamaican Music

The tambourine or timbrel is an important musical instrument in Revival churches in Jamaica. It is also featured in mento, Kumina and Pocomania music.

According to Wikipedia, the tambourine originated in Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, the Middle East and India.

Tambourine in Jamaican Music

Tambourine

The Tainos, Jamaica’s original people, called it the maguey, and used it in celebrations for their ancestors.

There are several references to the tambourine in Jamaican popular culture. In the Anancy story, Tiger Sheep-Skin Suit, Brer (Brother) Tiger plays the tambourine.  Anancy (or Anansi), a spider and a trickster who outsmarts everyone, came to Jamaica from Ghana’s Ashanti people.

Another reference comes in 1837, when Isaac Belisario (1794-1849), a Jamaican artist of Jewish descent, published several paintings on street life, which included costumed dancers and singers who sang to the music of fife, triangle and tambourine.

The tambourine comes in different shapes. The most popular resembles a small drum with several metal disks placed at intervals in the side. To use it, the player shakes the instrument with one hand then strikes it with the other.

Prince Harry Playing the Tambourine in Jamaica

Last year, when Prince Harry was on his official visit to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, he played the tambourine with British vocalist Gary Barlow who was also on the island recording music for an album commemorating the Jubilee.

The Institute of Jamaica – Rastafari: Unconquerable!

Rastafari exhibition in Jamaica

On July 21st, the Institute of Jamaica opened an historic exhibition entitled, Rastafari: Unconquerable! It is the first exhibition in Jamaica on the Rastas and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to see it.

Rastafari exhibition in Jamaica

Entrance to the exhibition

During the ride to the museum, I thought several times of One Love: Discovering Rastafari, the first exhibition on the Rastas that I had seen at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. I was excited to see that Rastafari, the small movement that began in Jamaica in the late 1930s and has since spread worldwide, was finally getting consideration and scholarship. Discovering Rastafari, which ran from November 2007 to November 2011, left me wondering if that was all there was. I hoped the current show would be the definitive study on Rasta.

Rastafari exhibition, Jamaica

Rastafari: Unconquerable!

Rasta exhibition, Institute of Jamaica

Artwork from Rastafari: Unconquerable!

Undoubtedly larger in space and scope, Rastafari: Unconquerable tells the story of the birth and evolution of Rasta through videos, installations, artefacts and personal stories. It covers several watershed moments in the history of the movement in segments organized around themes such as Revelation of Rastafari, its Philosophy and Evolution, and the 1966 visit to Jamaica of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. It also features a review of the attempts at suppression of the movement by Jamaican authorities, by far one of the most appalling periods in our history.

Rastafari Exhibition, Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey

Rastafari Visionaries

Visionaries

Rastafari Exhibition

Haile Selassie in Jamaica, 1966

Rastafari has come a long way since Lionel Howell, the first Rasta, founded Pinnacle, the home he established for his followers, and Marcus Garvey advised the poor and downtrodden to look to Africa for the crowning of a black king who would deliver them out of poverty.  It’s exciting to see the museum finally undertaking this important step in recognizing Rasta’s influence on the society, and their presence in the world.

Rastafari exhibition

Haile Selassie

One thing that struck me about the exhibition was its stillness, its flatness. It was as if the breath, power, vitality and passion that pulses through Rastafari could not, as the title suggests, be conquered even in this exhibition that celebrates Rastafari; the Movement which grew out of struggle, with larger than life visionaries who fought against the system, could not be tamed. Still, it’s an excellent first exhibition, a must see.

Rastafari: Unconquerable remains on view at the Institute of Jamaica, 10-16 East Street, Kingston. 876-922-0620, Admission $5

 

The Rhumba Box

Rhumba box, Jamaica

While waiting in the immigration line at the Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay a few years ago, I heard the unmistakable sound of a mento band. They were playing a familiar tune, Take Her to Jamaica, and as I waited, I tapped my feet lightly and hummed along.

The singing got louder as I exited immigration on my way to pick up my luggage from the carousel. By now, I could see the musicians – three or four of them. One was playing a rhumba box, a percussion instrument that I hadn’t seen in years.

Rhumba box, Jamaica

Rhumba box

The rhumba box is a two foot square wooden box. It has a hole in the center to which is attached five metal strips that are tuned to different pitches. At that size, it’s also a seat for the musician and allows him to reach the metal keys.

The rhumba box originated from the African mbira, or thumb piano. It made its way to Cuba, where it’s called the marímbola, then to other countries. In Jamaica, it’s synonymous with mento, the folk music that is a precursor to ska and reggae.

Sitting on the rhumba box, he strummed the metal strips to hold the rhythm for the guitar and the maracas players as they belted out the words to another song, This Long Time Gal.

I watched many stoic faces relax and smile as they heard the music. I was still humming to myself as I walked out of the airport.

Click here to listen to the sound of the rhumba box and here to hear a mento version of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab by the Jolly Boys.

 

I’m linking this post to the weekly photo linkup, Travel Photo Thursday, at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Be sure to head over and check out other photos from locations around the world. Enjoy!