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Culture on Display at the West Indian American Carnival

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 Institute of Jamaica – Rastafari: Unconquerable!

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

 

Everald Brown Dove Harp – Jamaica

It wasn’t hard to miss this colorful object, called a dove harp, that was part of an exhibition on view at the National Museum of Jamaica (formerly the Institute of Jamaica). I thought I recognized the work as belonging to one of our local artists but I wasn’t sure.

A quick look at the caption confirmed that the object was the creation of intuitive artist, Everald Brown, popularly called “Brother Brown.”

Everald or Brother Brown's Dove Harp

Dove Harp

Continuing, the caption noted that Brown’s “art and spirituality are bound together and are distinctly indicated through his work. His art work is the visual representation of a generously all-inclusive world view, in which just about everything is regarded as being spiritually meaningful. Brother Brown’s musical instruments bring together sound and vision, the two most important components of his mystical experiences. Their shapes and decorations are laden with intricate symbolism and were originally meant for collective ritual use by his church band.”

Everald Brown, a self-taught artist, was born in Clarendon, Jamaica in 1917. He embraced Rastafarianism and Revivalism and founded the Assembly of the Living, a mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in Kingston.

In 1973, Brown moved his family from Kingston to a community in rural St. Ann where they lived off the land. There, his art and spirituality flourished and he painted and carved his dreams and visions of the world around him. He also created handmade musical instruments, like the dove harp, and star banjos.

Following his death in 2002, the National Gallery of Jamaica mounted a retrospective of his work in 2004. It featured more than 100 paintings, carvings and musical instruments.

 

This week, I’m linking up with Travel Photo Thursday, which Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox organizes. Be sure to head over and check out other photos from locations around the world. Enjoy!

The Gumbay Drum

The gumbay drum caught my attention at the Accompong Maroon Festival in January. I’d never seen a drum that was small and square and looked more like a stool than a drum.

As I was leaving the festival, I noticed a small stall with storyboards explaining how gumbay drums are made. There were also several drums on display. The gentleman inside introduced himself as the son of the master drum maker.

Gumbay drum maker's son

Son of the master drum maker

Maker of the gumbay drum

The master drum maker

Sanding the gumbay drum

Storyboard of the master drum maker

Although simple in design, the gumbay drum has several parts. The inner part of is called a baby, the outer part the frame. The top, which is usually made from the skin of the female goat, is the membrane. Maroons use the gumbay drum in their rituals and traditional ceremonies. They are also used to induce a trance state and to communicate with the ancestors.

Storyboard explaining the making of the gumbay drum

Storyboard

He explained how the drums were made — the design looked simple enough for a professional. I doubt that I would have been able to fit the pieces together as easily.  He also demonstrated the special rhythms that drummers play in the different instances when the drum is used. (Sorry, I can’t find my notes and I’ve forgotten the names of the master drum maker and his son.)

Three gumbay drums

Drums on display

Closeup of a gumbay drum

Closeup

 

This is my submission to Travel Photo Thursday, which is organized by Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Be sure to head over and check out more photos from locations around the world.