When mas was mas: Brooklyn Carnival

Far from the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad Carnival’s tradition of colourful fantasy mas thrives in the midst of Brooklyn’s Labour Day celebrations — and in J’Ouvert, no less. It’s thanks to the vision of masman Roy Pierre and his colleagues, says Ray Funk. Their bands are true to history and to the present moment, all at once

From Running of the Bulls, Roy Pierre and Associates’ 2014 presentation. Photography by Keith GetterFrom Running of the Bulls, Roy Pierre and Associates’ 2014 presentation. Photography by Keith GetterPierre moved to New York City in 1966, after growing up in Belmont, east Port of Spain. Photography by Keith GetterTrinidad-born poet Mervyn Taylor is one of Pierre’s oldest friends and closest collaborators. Photography by Keith GetterMasquerader Errol Husband, portraying a Space Priest in the 2007 band X-tra Terrestrial. Photography by Keith GetterMasqueraders portraying Wandering Desert Royalty in 2013’s band A Magic Carpet Ride. Photography by Keith Getter2012’s Harlequins and Pierrots on the streets of Brooklyn. Photography by Keith GetterBrooklyn J’Ouvert bandleader Roy Pierre. Photography by Keith Getter

Brooklyn Carnival has grown to be one of the biggest events of the summer in New York City, drawing millions to Eastern Parkway on Labour Day each September. The parade follows the pattern of other contemporary Caribbean Carnivals, where the revellers are mostly women and the costumes often little more than bikinis with beads and feathers. The music is predominantly the latest soca, blasting from music trucks with DJs. The steelbands that once had a central role on Eastern Parkway, back in the 1970s, have disappeared.

For that, you have to get up very early in the morning and take to Labour Day’s version of J’Ouvert, the pre-dawn event that is well over a century old in Trinidad, but in Brooklyn started only about twenty years ago. Here you can still see steelbands performing on the road, and older mas traditions still have a hold. And each year at Brooklyn J’Ouvert the one mas band that stands out with its costumes, and has won more awards than any other, is Roy Pierre and Associates.

While younger revellers gravitate to other J’Ouvert bands with mud and paint and powder, Pierre has a loyal set of followers. Many of them are Trinidadians who grew up playing mas decades earlier — when mas was mas, when costumes represented distinct characters, and masqueraders were transported into another persona. Pierre’s band has been as large as six hundred, but now hovers around 350, and is open to anyone who comes to the mas camp on Church Avenue and signs up. Some loyal members travel from as far away as Florida to play in the band each year.

Inspired by fashion and theatre, the subjects of the band’s presentations have ranged widely, from Arabian Knights and Australian Aboriginal culture in Boomerang to an exploration of French culture in C’est La Vie, when Pierre played Marcel Marceau. The band has also gone South of the Border and X-tra Terrestrial. In Governor’s Ball, they took as their subject a classic Mighty Sparrow calypso about class in society and brought it to life on the streets. For 2014, it was the Running of the Bulls in Spain, and this year they will take to the high seas with Jolly Roger (Pirates Meet Mermaids). 

Like many Carnival stories, this one begins in Belmont, in east Port of Spain, where Pierre grew up. He lived for a while in the home of the great mas man Jason Griffith, and as a child first played mas with Horace Lovelace. Later he joined the Dem Fortunates band’s fancy sailor section with his friend Mervyn Taylor, and one year he played with the great Harold Saldenah in Pacific Paradise.

Then in January 1966, at the age of eighteen, Pierre left Trinidad and went to Brooklyn. He soon got a job, but almost immediately he was also promoting dances for the Caribbean community, in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, from lofts to basements. While these parties had a Caribbean flavour, they also were hip to the latest American youth fashion and music. Meanwhile, the Labour Day Carnival, which had started in Harlem, moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and Pierre decided to start a mas band. For seven years he had a leading band on Eastern Parkway, mixing fashion and costumes, and he won the award for Mas Band of the Year in 1974 with Midnight at the Oasis. But he gave it up after the 1977 Carnival, concerned at the direction the festival on Eastern Parkway was taking.

 

For many years, Pierre’s mas-making was limited to returning to Trinidad yearly for Carnival. It was the emergence of J’Ouvert with steelbands and rhythm bands on the streets of Brooklyn that drew him back in. With old friend Mervyn Taylor, Pierre created a band bringing together elements of satirical “ole mas” combined with a high-style, more fashion-conscious sensibility. As Taylor recalls, Brooklyn J’Ouvert gave them “more freedom” than the daytime parade on Eastern Parkway. With theirs so unlike other J’Ouvert bands, the judges moved to create a new category, “Fancy Ole Mas,” which Roy Pierre and Associates began winning regularly.

Taylor is the calm rudder steering the wind-buffeted exuberance of Pierre. He can bring Pierre’s ideas into a sharper and more nuanced focus, for instance turning the idea of a masked ball into a play on a classic calypso in Governor’s Ball. Pierre calls Taylor his “cultural advisor.” Another Belmont native, Taylor went to Howard University and then Columbia in the mid 1960s, then moved to Brooklyn, where he has become a respected poet with five books to his name. He has taught in the public schools in New York as well as at the New School and Bronx Community College. Pierre and Taylor have collaborated from the beginning in Brooklyn.

After they sit down, come up with the concepts, and refine them, Pierre takes the ideas to his artist to have them come to life on paper. For the last ten years, it’s been Agustin Hazim, a Dominican trained at the Fashion Institute of New York, who works closely with Pierre to turn his dreams into drawings. From these, the band’s sections are determined, and Pierre works with the section leaders and a crew of seamstresses who go from prototypes to finished costumes.

For many years the band has also had a handful of “individuals,” trusted masqueraders who take the concept and create their own costumes — another tradition derived from the older Trinidad Carnival scene. Janet “Flagwoman” Lewis is one. Another is Selwyn Wilkinson, who grew up in Belmont with Pierre and Taylor. Wilkinson is responsible for making floats for the band. For C’est la Vie, he became Popeye pulling the Eiffel Tower to America. For last year’s Running of the Bulls, Wilkinson built a float with a full-size bull.

There is nothing quite like Roy Pierre’s band in the history of New York Carnival. Brooklyn Carnival traces its roots to pre-Lenten balls in Harlem as early as the 1930s, when Trinidadian expats and others from the Caribbean got together. The most prominent of these were the Dame Lorraine dances sponsored by Trinidadian bandleader Gerald Clark which went from the mid 1930s to the late 1950s. Carnival took to the streets of Harlem in 1947, attracting thousands with small mas bands, floats, and a handful of steelbands each year. When Harlem Carnival fell apart in the early 1960s, the festival moved over to Brooklyn — by then the main home of the Caribbean community in New York City — largely through the efforts of one masman, Rufus Gorin.

A pre-dawn J’Ouvert was not added until much later. It started in the mid 1980s as a forum for the steelbands that were no longer feeling welcome on the Parkway, joined by older “ole mas” revellers on the road. The number of these grew, and in 1994 Earl King organised Jouvert City International, got police permits, and made it all more formal with competitions and prizes. J’Ouvert in Brooklyn has grown into a huge event that goes from Eastern Parkway, starting at around 3 am, and lasting past dawn, with dozens of groups proceeding along Flatbush Avenue on the edge of Prospect Park, down to Nostrand Avenue, with thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators.

Unlike J’Ouvert in Port of Spain, music trucks are banned, and the main music on the road for revellers comes from steelbands, though rhythm bands and Haitian rara bands are also part of the mix. Most bands have followed the style of J’Ouvert in Trinidad, taking on simple costumes and younger revellers. Few have such elaborate costumes with different sections as Roy Pierre puts on the road. His bands hearken back to the great historical and fantasy mas bands that were seen in Trinidad on Carnival Tuesday in the 1950s and 1960s. They seem to be transported from a different style of Carnival, one very much from Pierre’s youth.

“Roy and Mervyn walk the edge between order and chaos,” says photographer Keith Getter, the band’s de facto documentarian. “They make a serious statement on the matters of the day while embracing the uninhibited frivolity and unpredictability of life on the road.” That’s just another old Carnival tradition that still lives on the streets of Brooklyn.

 

American J’Ouvert

for Rufus Gorin

I.

In the dark we come
down Flatbush Avenue —

Old Black Joe
face painted and long,

Wilkinson the preacher,
pilloried and chained, 

Harriet Tubman and
The Freedom Train,

Emmett Till’s mother
and a stern-faced Toussaint, 

cotton pickers, and cane-cutters
When Cotton Was King

— and on Empire Boulevard we parade
in a J’Ouvert band called Cotton & Cane.

 

II.

Across Grand Army Plaza, when
a cold wind blows, for heat

we huddle between the pan
and the exhaust of the police van.

Between tall buildings,
Flagwoman in front, we portray

Aborigines, with albino crocodile,
Harlequins and Pierrots, clowns

with tears, and smiles. In Rags to Riches,
someone asks, The cross heavy?

No, is only cardboard and paint. And
on Nostrand, when they say, Stop!

Is only then we remember how far Mouse,
dressed as Delilah, must travel to get home.

– Mervyn Taylor

  • Joyful

    What an excellent article about the rich history of “playing mas” every Labor Day. Kudos to Roy Pierre and Mervyn Taylor for keeping up the tradition.