(This post revises a story from “Tales from the Archive,” a series on makandal.org. Posted on 9 September 2015, it captured a slice of West Indian Carnival on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 3 September 1990.)
Carnival was probably the farthest thing from the minds of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux when they designed the world’s first parkway: Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. At work at the same time (circa 1866) on Prospect Park, they hoped to connect the Park with green spaces on the eastern end of Crown Heights, an expanse topping the site of a glacial moraine from the last ice age. The West Indian Day Parade, established in Manhattan’s Harlem in 1947 by Trinidadians who settled there, relocated to the Crown Heights stretch of Eastern Parkway in 1969. In 1990 Trinidadians still managed the parade, but it was open without permit to anyone who wanted to jump into the melee. Really! What would Olmstead and Vaux have thought of connecting those green spaces with singing steel pans, a kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies and Indians, and unabashed soca winin’? To which Makandal would add its Haitian gouyad…
The Brooklyn Arts Council, then known officially as the Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association (BACA), funded our appearance on the Parkway in 1990. We could have provided our services gratis. But the big groups had sponsors, so why shouldn’t we? The publicly funded grant covered rental of a truck with a small flatbed, decoration of the truck with branches and sign, and compensation for core Troupe artists. Frisner assembled musicians Jean Alphonse, Steve Deats, Paul Newman, Luc Richard (all drummers), and Alberto Plummer (trumpet); dancers Nicole Attaway, Carole Jean Louis, and Jocelyne Louis; and several friends and students.
Frisner worked with a friend to paint the large wooden sign crediting our sponsor. (It was not lost on our Haitian friends that the acronym BACA, pronounced with a hard “C,” is baka in Kreyòl: a small demon.) He embellished the words in the front with the cover of his 1986 album Èzili and a cutout photo of himself with a trophy from the back of his 1982 album A Trip to Vodou. The back of the sign bore images of various Vodou spirits. The hood of the cab and the back of the bed each carried a drapo (a Haitian sequin arts genre), with each flashing symbols of the Vodou spirits. Props also included a flag sporting yet more symbols of the spirits on a base that resembled the Haitian national flag. We made sure that Haitians who lined the Parkway—treated mainly in 1990 to calypso and soca from Trinidad and maybe a spot of Haitian konpa–got a nice Afro-Haitian bouyon rasin (roots stew). In case you’re wondering, the maestro’s costume was a yellow cotton print dress he’d bought for me in a Miami flea market.
We set out from our home base on Rutland Road in East Flatbush and zigzagged through the streets toward the Parkway, and from that point our cortege blossomed. In all I captured nearly two hours of video, and friend and photographer Chantal Regnault countless photos. We had moved a mere eight blocks along the Parkway when the police directed us down Rogers Avenue. But it was ample time for our audience to get into the groove and swivel their hips to such Carnival classics as “O Seigneur.” That’s what gouyad means, by the way, a fun and seductive hip grind. Watch Frisner’s rooftop gouyad in the final minutes of the video—and try it!
Note: The video below, from The Makandal Channel on YouTube, excerpts special moments from the whole day’s performance. Those interested in history, social context, and other tropical delights may find the unedited footage here in the Wilcken Collection of the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive on YouTube. To make a donation to the Archive’s ongoing work, please visit the Memorial Project page.
First Image: Photo by Chantal Regnault. Frisner Augustin blows a kòne (single-note trumpet) on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, during the West Indian Day Parade, 3 September 1990. Archived here for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive.
Second Image: Photo by Chantal Regnault. Frisner Augustin drums for carnival revelers on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, during the West Indian Day Parade, 3 September 1990. Archived here for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive.
Video: Shot and edited by Lois Wilcken. Makandal participates in the West Indian Day Parade on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, with public funding through the Brooklyn Arts Council. Edited video appears as Working the Carnival on The Makandal Channel on YouTube. Unedited video archived here for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive.
Story by Lois Wilcken