Betty West: “When they look tired I say, ‘Look at me!’”

Barbados Crop Over bandleader and designer Betty West on the importance of understanding history and preserving culture

Betty West. Photograph by Mike Toy

I used to be a modern jazz dancer in England, and then I went into modelling. I lived in England for twenty years. And then I came back to Barbados in ’85. With the dancing experience and also [in] fashion, I started what is the most popular and successful fashion cabaret held in Barbados. What I do is feature local and regional designers. I also have a cast of thirty models plus dancers, and so on.

In ’91, I was approached by some youngsters — Peter Coppin, who is now a radio personality, and two others wanted to bring a Kadooment band, and they did not know how to go about it, and they asked me if I would assist them. They were friends of my son’s. I did, it was successful, and then I got the itch for that. So I’ve been involved in Crop Over. Last year, I won “band of the year” both for the adults and the juniors [for the bands Big Up Dem Bajan Events and Out of a Storybook, respectively].

My first band — which was called The Arrival of the Mob; that’s the one I was with the young people — what we did was we had a sailor section with the ship arriving, we actually had someone dressed up like Al Capone (I was his mistress), and then we ended up with the prisoners and the cat-o’-nine-tails. And the whole thing about it was you could come to Barbados, you could have fun, but if you break the law, you will be punished!

I did all that costuming myself. Right now, we have a committee, and I’m well into it where I have people in place and so on. At that time, I had no one. And when I looked back on the day of the actual Kadooment and saw what I’d created and the beauty of it, that is what brought that itch. It was, like, you want to do more, you have to do more.

What I like about our Barbados Kadooment is that, to win that big prize, you have to have the history of Barbados. I wasn’t born in Barbados, actually. I was born in Guadeloupe — my mother is Barbadian — but [I’ve been] here most of my life. What I do sometimes is I use my band house for education, for young people if they want to come in and see what’s going on, because I’m not going to be always around.

You must love this thing to be in it, because it’s very stressful. You know, sleepless nights, having hardly anything to eat. Even when it’s finished, you still think you have to decorate, you have to do this and whatnot. Last year, my band was 450; this year, I’m going six hundred. And you have to deal with all these people, you have to make sure all these people are happy.

Actually, I carry my queen all the way down. I am there with my band members, jumping all the way with them. When they look tired, I say, “Look at me!” All the way down Spring Garden.

At my age, I don’t think I know it all. I have what I call an outside production manager, which is a gentleman I bring in from Trinidad to actually do the wire-bending. But then I have Barbadians there — he’s teaching them in the meantime.

What the NCF [National Cultural Foundation] is doing now is taking it into the primary schools — they have one or two professional people there — but that is not enough. I think it should be a subject at [Barbados] Community College or somewhere like that, so people can study.

I just came back from Trinidad. That is their culture. When you go to Trinidad, you have the old, the young, the big, the small — everybody is in this. Although it generates a hell of a lot of money for Barbados, [the celebration of] Crop Over is not supported enough, not treated enough as part of our culture.

There are a few bandleaders I admire, actually. Cranston Browne; he’s not doing it now. Kenny Bovell; he’s now our president of the Barbados Association of Masqueraders. Omowale Stewart — he’s always good for advice because he’s very artistic. Also Gwyneth Squires. The two of us are politicians: people think we’re enemies, but we’re not enemies, you understand. When it comes to Crop Over, we’re in competition. And it’s who takes out who!

Sponsorship is very hard. If we had to depend on sponsorship, we’d never come. But I had started to put things together from November 2005 for the launch of Crop Over in May. The prototypes are done. They are the samples of your headpieces, either on paper or models, the belts and so on. Although sometimes you do change along the way, because of material, or you feel a different colour.

This year’s band for adults, Environmentally Yours, is going to be based on the beauty of nature. What we’ve been given, the gift we’ve been given, and just portraying that.

Where preparing for Crop Over is concerned, it gets into your personal life, because you have to be here more or less 24 hours. This does make a change in your life. You lose friends, you lose close ones. It’s a sacrifice. And it’s one that I’m prepared to make.