As the noonday sun blazes overhead, Georgia Avenue NW turns into another world. People crowd either side of the street, covering their bodies in combinations of red, white, black, green, blue, and yellow in a show of solidarity with whichever country they call home—Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, Guyana, Grenada. A vendor pushes a cart of Caribbean flags through the exodus uphill.
In the middle of the street, a woman is already misbehaving: Flip goes a fluorescent-green bob wig and unzip goes the dress; she rolls her large bosom lined with green sequins, and shakes her butt, in a black G-string. “Show mih yuh t’ing, t’ing, t’ing,” echoes a calypso voice blaring from the sound system on a six-wheeler just ahead. The young man of her eye ticks his pelvis and scoots toward her.
Half a block away, 26 bands—some in costumes, some with steel drums, one group caked in coats of mud—trek toward Banneker Park, which marks the end of the ribbon of color that started 4 miles up Georgia at Missouri Avenue. African drums pulse in the line. A member from the soca band Chaos starts up: “Ah hearin’ a riddim…”
“Put yuh hand in de air!” bellows a voice from the speakers. The crowd bounces forward, with fists raised and flags high as sequined costumes shimmer in the sun. The cashiers at CVS look outside every few seconds to see what’s happening. Two men covered in blue paste approach: One guy carries a pole of sugar cane in one hand and a container of baby powder in the other; the other blows hard into the whistle hanging around his neck and gyrates down to the ground.
People have come from as far as North Carolina, Missouri, and Canada to slake the thirst for home and have the chance to run into people they haven’t seen in the years since they left the Caribbean. Sprung from African emancipation and mockery of French masquerade balls, Carnival on the islands has become a multinational event calling back together the people of the Caribbean diaspora. But for Caribbean folks living here who can’t afford to travel each year, the event has been re-created by the D.C. Carnival Committee. The D.C. Caribbean Carnival found a permanent home on Georgia Avenue in 1992 after false starts at RFK Stadium and Prince George’s Community College. “People said, ‘Yeah, it’s nice, but why not bring it along a corridor that is heavily populated with Caribbean businesses?’” recalls Roland Barnes, who co-chairs the committee. With places like Brown’s Caribbean Bakery, Teddy’s Roti Shop—even B.J. Lockhart Insurance—and new Caribbean businesses springing up every year, Barnes saw Georgia Avenue as the ideal route.
On a Sunday afternoon three weeks before D.C. Carnival, the side of bandleader Jackie Cumberbatch’s house in Takoma Park displays two skeletal metal structures on wheels—armatures for huge parade costumes. His portrayal for this Carnival, which he calls “Spirit of the Antilles,” is a secret. He is using all the colors of the Caribbean national flags, because he doesn’t want people to get into heated debates trying to distinguish between the countries he puts in and those he excludes. In his back yard stands a wooden tentlike annex covered by blue plastic that forms his “mascamp,” where he creates costumes for Carnival—drawings of costumes are tacked and taped up all over the place. It’s one of the only mascamps in the area, Cumberbatch boasts, because most of his fellow revelers are cluttering their living rooms and dining rooms with armbands and headdresses.
Last year, someone reported Cumberbatch to Montgomery County officials, insisting that the temporary roof posed a hazard. But, as an independent construction contractor, Cumberbatch is unfazed; he says that next year, he’ll likely reinforce the structure—and extend it all the way out to the backyard fence. He announces his plan proudly as he walks bare-bellied around a cluttered table, taking a pencil out from behind his ear and measuring proportions with a T-square. On the table, fabric scraps from last year mingle with glue and sequins for this year. Around him, five men sit silently, their eyes glued to a small TV rumbling in the background—soccer is on.
A huge lump of color projects conspicuously from one corner. “Dose are last year’s costumes,” he says. “Ah bring dem out here so people go t’ink dat’s what Ah bringin’ out.” He says he has seen imitations of his designs on the street, so he is fronting booby traps for any rival bandleader who wants to learn his secrets. The real costumes, he assures, are hidden in his basement.
Cumberbatch focuses all of his attention on spiffing up a queen costume. His wife and daughter—and others who stop by—help in the intricate folding of psychedelic material that will become the back. One guy, who will wear a large king costume this year, is cutting out pieces of gold fabric. The talk varies around which of them have already booked their plane tickets for Carnival back home in 2000 and gossip about another costume band that hosted big-name calypsonians to raise money but ended up in debt when no one showed up. Most bandleaders find themselves paying out of their own pockets. As bandleader Tony Castor describes it, there is usually no money to be made in producing a carnival band. “Yuh have to do it fuh de love,” he says.
At De Panyard on Rhode Island Avenue in Brentwood, Md., the Pan Masters Steel Orchestra, a local steel band, is a little frustrated. If you want to dance near the band, you have to wear one of its colorful T-shirts; if you want a T-shirt, you have to pay. The money goes to defray Carnival expenses and to support the band’s effort toward buying studio space. The Pan Masters have been packing the house with calypso contests, pan jamborees, and pan competitions at De Panyard, but people are slow to sign up.
As is normal for a practice night, the garage door is open, and the sounds of steel-drum chord progression echo into the woods behind. “Nah, is F sharp, A, C sharp,” Pete St. Cyr commands the six-bass. This is St. Cyr’s first time arranging a song for the band. Two black sets of bass drums announce the deep line, which requires not only arm coordination of the player, but foot syncopation as well.
A drum set guards the open doorway. “One, two, three, four, and…” The band starts. St. Cyr promptly follows with a loud continuous stomp of the right foot, meant to guide the band in the proper timing. “Dee boh, boh, boh, baa…” St. Cyr sings a line and demonstrates the correct phrasing. Almost no one reads music; in Pan Masters, the most effective way to learn is by imitation. One person learns a part and then shows it to a particular section—the tenors, double-seconds, cellos, or basses.
Banners of memories hang overhead as inspiration. The mobile racks that carry the instruments in the parade stand alone in the dark outside, bare-framed for now. But as the Carnival approaches, they will soon be vibrating with a full orchestra and the beats of iron men—musicians who use hub caps and other car parts as percussion instruments. The lone bass player in attendance is new, and he’s having a little trouble with the timing. The other basses seem to be missing in action. St. Cyr and the rest of the band are slightly worried.
When Carnival comes, the Pan Masters will vie for attention among all the other bands at the event. But Robert Bullit Thwaites, who conducts the band’s practice sessions, doesn’t see the Carnival as a competition. “I look at it as progress where steel band is concerned,” he says, hopeful that people will eventually see pannists as serious musicians. “Because I don’t know a millionaire who is a steel-band person.”
On the Friday night before Carnival begins, the members of Garage Boys and Caribbean Girls are in the midst of their final cookout. But unlike the other fundraisers the group—mainly Tobagonians—has hosted at Harold’s Auto Body Shop, tonight’s features an unusual menu. Instead of chicken with rice and peas there is mud, and instead of curry the seasonings are peroxide, lard, and secret ingredients they let no one see.
Members get the reddest mud they can find from a construction site at the corner of Eastern and New Hampshire Avenues NE. With bucket, barrel, and shovel they take the mud back to the mascamp, their headquarters, to soak for a day to help remove the stones. Next they scoop it into a half-barrel over a wood-fueled flame and bore into the hard chunks with a high-speed drill. The reddish-brown liquid splashes upward and melts into a thin paste. After filling seven more half-barrels, they leave the mud to cool. The concoction will become the mainstay of “Millennium Mudders,” the group’s fifth “mud mas” presentation since Carnival’s inception.
Bandleader Charlton Caruth recalls that when the Garage Boys first came up with the idea to bring out a mud band, some people didn’t think it proper—it didn’t belong at Carnival. But their critics should know better, says Andy Alexis, an organizer and DJ for the group. “If they are from our country, then they know the mud band is the original Carnival,” he says. “In the early days of Carnival, you didn’t have people bending wire. It was more powder on your face; you walked around like sailors, and you had the paste of the devil or the mud.”
African-American researcher and photographer Allen Jackson attests that mud has long been a part of African rituals of rebirth. Although mud masqueraders may not be consciously aware of it, he says, the “feeling of emancipation” they get from playing in a mud band may be the same sensation their ancestors felt during the period between the harvest and the next planting season.
“It’s just an earthly thing—back to roots,” says Hazel Bachalo, a Trinidadian native who travels from Richmond every year to play with the band. “You feel that love. It bring out who you really are.”
By 6 p.m. Saturday, not all of the bands have arrived at their destination, but the police are bringing the parade to a close…somewhat. Although they stop the big bands from playing, the crowd rallies behind the steel bands bringing up the rear to Banneker Field. King and queen costumes are falling apart.
The mud band stops at a fire hydrant to wash off. One man, Steve Landrigan, tells the story of a D.C. cop he saw: “He had mud all over he back, and mud all over he front, and so Ah ask him, which is he more afraid of—he commanding officer or he wife—and he say, ‘Please don’t let any of them know about this thing.’”
Others share stories about the wild things they have seen during the parade: The man who tied up his “stuff” in a plastic bag and a woman whose questionable costume was “A stocking—a real transparent stocking!” one woman reports. “She pull it all de way up. There was nothing underneath it, to top it off, and she had two string to hold it up.”
“Ah had so much fun,” says Faith Nelson, trying to remember it all. “Ah came to play with Pan Masters, the steel band, but gyuurl…Ah tell you…Ah had to leave dem and go up de street just to hear de other music, and Ah heard new music, and it was fun, so Ah wind and wind and wind up mih waist….Oh Gord, Ah tired now. Ah want some Trinidadian food. Oh Gord, Ah want to eat. Ah jus’ want some doubles now, and my day is complete,” she says, and then she breaks into singing calypso. CP