By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2001 Jamaica Kincaid
All rights reserved.
West Indian Weekend
Speeding by Taxi Across the Manhattan Bridge with Sassy Antiguan Jamaica Kincaid—Toward Dimanche Gras, on the Grounds of the Brooklyn Museum, on the Third Day of the Seventh Annual West Indian—American Day Carnival:
"There are several things you ought to know," said Jamaica. "First of all, you are going to see The Mighty Sparrow, who is the No. 7 calypso singer. Secondly, you are going to see 'Ole Mas.' The 'Ole Mas' is a spoof. This year, there is going to be an important 'Ole Mas' about New York Transit Authority buses. There will be men dressed as women—my friend Mr. Errol Payne told me all about it. One man will have a big over-stuffed bust. He'll have a sign saying 'I Own de Bus.' Another man will have a big overstuffed bust trailing behind him. He'll have a sign saying 'I Lose de Bus.' But what I really have to do is to tell you about 'jumping up.' 'Jumping up' is a very important West Indian concept. You 'jump up' whenthings get to be so exciting you just can't sit still, and that happens all the time during Carnival. I love to go to Carnival now, because when I was growing up my mother would not let me 'jump up.' My mother was so strict. All I wanted was to 'jump up' at Carnival and get little patent-leather shoes from America. My mother would never let me 'jump up,' and she would never let me have shoes from America, because she said they would fall apart in the first rain. Anyway, when I was fourteen we had a real row because I wanted to march with a band at Carnival. I was going to be in a band dressed up as bees and I would have been a worker bee. It wasn't much, but my mother just wouldn't let me do it. So we compromised, and she got me a pair of plaid sneakers from America. She was right, of course. As soon as they hit water, they fell apart."
At Dimanche Gras (Threatened by Rain), on the Grounds of the Brooklyn Museum:
There were a lot of seats set up around a big stage in the open air. On the back of each seat was a plastic bag that read "Fred Richmond for Congress," which would become useful if it rained. Jamaica introduced us to several dignified men who wore ribboned badges reading "Carnival Improvement Committee." Then she introduced us to La Belle Christine, the limbo dancer. "I'm the famous limbo-dance artist," said Miss Christine. "I performed on Friday night. I'm adjunct-professor of Ethnic Dance at City University. I'm America's No. 1 limbo-dance artist. I design my own costumes and I do my own choreography. I've got my B.A. I'm working on my M.A. I'm in Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges: 1972-73."
We asked Miss Christine where she came from in the Caribbean.
"I'm from Montserrat," she said. "'The Emerald Isle of Natural Beauty.'"
Then The Mighty Shadow—a young calypso singer who won the 1974 Road March in Trinidad and Tobago—came onstage. He was dressed in beige pants, a navy-blue jacket, and an orange-and-white large-brimmed hat. He sang in a rapid-fire style to music that was staccato beyond syncopation. Jamaica said he was very slick. Then Alwyn Roberts—Lord Kitchener—came on. Lord Kitchener is a famous Calypso singer who has been popular for many years. He wore white pants, a black-white-and-yellow shirt, and a maroon cap. His music had a less rapid, less staccato beat. "I like Lord Kitchener very much," Jamaica said. "You see how less slick he is? Shirt, pants, and cap. None of that jacket stuff. When I was little, it was Lord Kitchener, The Mighty Sparrow, and Lord Melody. They were the ones. Lord Kitchener and Lord Melody did songs about loose women. The Mighty Sparrow was always slipping in a little social consciousness. Remember Patrice Lumumba? The Mighty Sparrow did a song about Patrice Lumumba. Lord Melody was the raunchiest. Lord Melody did a lot of songs they wouldn't play on the radio."
The audience was very well behaved. In the audience there were people of every age—all enjoying the same thing and all well behaved. There were many men in coat and tie, and no one was sloppy. The white people in the audience weren't sloppy, but they were less well put together. Many of the white people there looked as if they were doing fieldwork for an extension course in Inter-Cultural Interaction: The Folk Experience. After Lord Kitchener performed, a man whose name we didn't catch sang a song about Trinidad called "God Bless Our Nation." The chorus went:
It's fantastic, yes it is, the way how we live as one.
In integration, our nation is second to none.
Yes, the Negroes, the white man, the Chinese, the children play
together in the sun,
In this wonderland of calypso, in this wonderland of steel bands.
Then The Mighty Sparrow came on. He wore blue polyester pants and a multicolored shirt, and had a whistle around his neck. He sang a song called "Come See Miss Mary," which was—well, suggestive, and then he sang a song called "We Passed That Stage." He sang:
Project an image of honesty and courage.
Put decency on front page.
Show wisdom not rage
You must remember we passed that stage.
Later (During the Rain) at Dimanche Gras:
After The Mighty Sparrow went off, a light rain began to fall. A steel band began to play, and people "jumped up"—all over but especially on the stage. Many people made use of their "Fred Richmond for Congress" plastic bags to keep the rain off their heads. One person who did this was Marcia Manners, the 1974 Carnival Queen. The band was good, and people had a fine time. It was very pleasant to "jump up" in the light rain. We had a good time talking with Ruddie King, who said he introduced steel bands in this country, and who told us how West Indian-American Day parades used to be in the old days when they were held in Harlem—starting at 110th Street and going up to 150th, ending with a celebration at the Rockland Palace. He showed us a group of props he had assembled for an "Ole Mas." There was a big clock, there was a figure of a man in a white pith helmet, there was an old pushcart, and there was an old-fashioned coal scuttle. Mr. King said that this "Ole Mas" was called "Behind Time." Then the rain got heavier. We took refuge in a booth where Mrs. Lezama, wife of Carlos Lezama, the hardworking man who organizes the Carnival each year, was presiding over pots of souse, rôti, and other West Indian food. We had some souse and some ginger beer made with fresh ginger, and then the rain really came down, spoiling the "Ole Mas." At five minutes past midnight, there was a cloudburst. Most people left. A dozen people went by under a tablecloth, still dancing. We left soon afterward. We found out the next day that Mr. Lezama and his co-worker Mr. Herman Hall stayed until the rain stopped, late in the morning, to properly look after the chairs, the stage, and other rented equipment.
Report from Jamaica on the History of Carnival:
"Errol Payne is an impressive-looking man who is the vice-president of art and culture of the West Indian-American Day Carnival Association. He is considered Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival ambassador to North America, and this is why: he has been entering costumes in band competitions since 1946; in 1956, he was made a Grand Knight of the Carnival Court for life; one of his winning costumes, 'Peacock,' was once used as a postage stamp for Trinidad and Tobago; he has had so many winning costumes that for a few years he was asked not to compete in costume contests in Trinidad and Tobago; his authority on costume-making is so widely respected that other costume-makers often come to him for assistance. So, naturally, if you want to know anything about Carnival, you ask him. This is what he says: 'Carnival started in Trinidad in the days of slavery, when the slave masters were French. Around Christmastime, the slave masters would celebrate with eating and drinking and dress themselves up in costume. The slaves would be allowed to celebrate, too, and it was the only time they could dress themselves up and pretend they were anything they wanted. A man could pretend he was a king or a prince. They didn't have fine things to dress up in, so they would use old rags and old things to do it. That was the beginning of "Ole Mas." After slavery was abolished, the ex-slaves went into the streets, singing and dancing and beating drums, and that was Carnival. It was also with the slaves that calypso music was born. If a slave master was standing in the presence of two or three slaves and they wanted to say something that they didn't want him to know about, they would start singing it in picong tone, which is broken English, and patois French. That was their way of communicating with each other without the slave master's knowing what they were saying. Ever since then, Carnival has been growing like a wild vine, and nobody can stop it!'
Excerpt from program of West Indian-American Day Parade down Eastern Parkway to Prospect Park:
While it is true that Carnival is a very informal affair you are kindly urged to refrain from dancing inside of costume bands on Eastern Parkway. You may dance in front of them or behind because it is not right for bandleaders to spend months of sleepless nights, a lot of money and to work under all poor type of conditions and then the public get inside of bands on Carnival Day; Thus not allowing the bands to display their pretty costumes.
Jamaica Reports on the West Indian-American Day Parade:
"I got to watch the parade from the second-best platform of dignitaries. The first-best platform of dignitaries was reserved for politicians. West Indians are the only group of people I know who still have a great deal of respect for politicians, men of the cloth, and schoolteachers, and anyone who makes a career in any of the above fields automatically becomes dignified. I saw Shirley Chisholm. She sat with her legs crossed at the ankles. Howard Samuels was there. No one seemed to recognize him, and he looked like a man who had got himself invited to the wrong party. Soon after, the first float appeared. It carried the Carnival Queen and her lady-in-waiting. The Queen looked regal enough in her long white gown and silver crown, but, instead of waving to the crowd and smiling like a dummy (the way queens usually behave), she was snapping her fingers, wiggling her hips, and shuffling her feet, all at the same time. I liked her very much and personally think she's going to start a new vogue in royal public behavior. Then came the bands. Now, here, when you say bands you don't mean people playing musical instruments together in harmony but people wearing costumes in harmony. That is, they pick a theme, and each member of the band wears a costume that supports it. The bands had names like Caribbean Fragrance, Fiesta South of the Border, Vision of Beauty, The Dream of Attila, Sailors Ashore in France, Splendor in Siena, and Dreaming Through the Ages. Quite a few of these fantasies took the shape of giant insects and birds, some were fishes, and some were dragons, and some I just couldn't figure out. They were quite wild and extravagant. The colors most often used were red, orange, and yellow. Everything was trimmed with gold and silver braiding. Some costumes had such elaborate skirts that little wheels had to be attached for mobility. Soon after this wave of fabulously alarming creatures passed by, things at the dignitaries' platforms got as boring as things at dignitaries' platforms can get. The remaining bands were ten blocks away, jumping up' for their own pleasure, and were in no great hurry to entertain dignitaries. Mrs. Chisholm kept waving; poor Mr. Samuels looked even more lost than before. I felt hungry and went to get something to eat. I bought a rice-and-peas-and-chicken-and- pork dish from a Panamanian woman, who said that she had made it herself. It was so good I had two portions. Then I had a patty—West Indian pastry stuffed with ground meat—which I bought from Tower Isle. I was told by the woman who sold it to me that you can find Tower Isle patties in the frozen-foods department of your local supermarket. Of course, I liked that idea very much, because you know an ethnic group has made it in this country when you find its food at your local grocer. As Lord Kitchener said to me, 'accessibility is the key to success.' After that, I had a large hunk of Shabazz Bean Pie. I say, without reservation, this is the No. 1 Third World dessert. In fact, every time I have some of it I think kindly of Mr. Shabazz and everybody with an 'X' after his name."
—September 30, 1974
Daytime Dancing, A Report
Every Friday, from noon to three o'clock, the young, upward-mobile, fun-loving, always-on-the-go set lunch and dance at La Martinique, a black discothèque at 57 West Fifty-seventh Street. Now, there are a few cultural traits that black people may want to deny (why, I'll never quite know), but there are some that they just can't escape. For instance, they can't deny that they know how to make dancing music better than anyone else, that they give better parties than anyone else, that they are better at dancing spontaneously than anyone else. The spirit of these three things makes a successful discothèque, and black discothèques are better than anyone else's. I visited La Martinique a couple of Fridays ago, and here are some of the things I noticed about the place.
La Martinique is a very welcoming discothèque. It has real-wood chairs at small fake-marble-topped tables, soft lighting, a large dance floor that always seems freshly sanded, a bar where you will get good Screwdrivers (and it would be wise not to have anything but), and a cigarette machine that charges seventy-five cents for a pack of cigarettes and takes only quarters.
In the evenings, La Martinique becomes a regular discothèque, and the people who are responsible for the evening entertainment are not the same people who put on the lunchtime dancing affair. The people responsible for the lunchtime dancing are Pjay Jackson, a secretary with an advertising agency; Roni Bovette; and Marvin Gathers. Pjay and the two men have a corporation that they call The Open Nose Production. It's a funny name but not unusual. It seems that whenever two or more black people go into the disco-party business in New York they give themselves names like A Nautilus Production or A Critical Path Production or The Winston Collection. Usually, at a disco party given by any one of the groups mentioned above, you are expressly forbidden to wear blue jeans, sneakers, or any other kind of clothing that will make you look poverty-stricken.
Here are some of the things I noticed about the people at La Martinique:
The people who go dancing there at lunch offer a special look at a new class of black people. It's the class whose men are particularly fond of well-tailored suits made up in a polyester fabric, wear moderately high-heeled shoes, have their hair styled in a small, neat Afro, smoke Kool or Pall Mall cigarettes, and never say to a young lady, "Hey, sugah, what you doin'?" Clarence McDade, a sales representative for DHJ Industries, at 1345 Sixth Avenue, is a good example of this. He was wearing a maroon suit that was sedate in cut and fit. He said about dancing at lunchtime at La Martinique, "I come here on Fridays because it's a way of letting off tensions. The setup is nice, the crowd is nice, most of the men are junior executives, like myself. When I go dancing in the evening, I usually patronize places like Leviticus, Gatsby's, and Nemo's, but every Friday I come here."
The women look something like this: pants suits or stylishly cut dresses made from another kind of polyester fabric, six-inch wedge platform shoes, plastic jewelry, and hair styles that suggest the use of a great deal of Dixie Peach Bergamot, a perfumed hairdressing pomade. This genre of black-female grooming has two things going for it: it is constantly pushed in the magazine Essence, and it is often marketed under the heading "Easy Elegance."
Dancing at lunchtime at La Martinique is reasonably priced. Not only will two-fifty allow you to dance but it will also entitle you to a lunch of cold cuts, salad, and fruit. The music isn't the top of black pop that you hear in most white discothèques. All the time I was there, I didn't hear my favorite song, "Kung Fu Fighting." The music that Ray, the resident d.j., is most fond of is long album cuts by B. T. Express, L.T.D., MFSB, Brian Auger, Manu Dibango, Hot Chocolate, The Bar-Kays, and the Average White Band.
There is one advantage to going dancing in the daytime, and Jimmy Jackson, who works at a post office somewhere in Brooklyn, pointed it out to me just before I left. "I work during the nights, so it's hard for me to get out," he said. "This is just the right thing for me." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Talk Stories by Jamaica Kincaid. Copyright © 2001 Jamaica Kincaid. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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