West Indian 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 on Prospect Park at the same time (circa 1866), they hoped to connect the Park with other green spaces in the borough. 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 to just about 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 whining? 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. Why shouldn’t we? The grant, taken from public funds, covered rental of a truck with a small flatbed, props, decoration of the truck, 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 little 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 carried a drapo, one of Haiti’s sequin arts, this one flashing a symbol of the spirit of love. Props also included a flag sporting 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 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. The party was over. But we’d had ample time get our audience hip-grinding 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 (below) and try it.
Isn’t the history of Eastern Parkway rich? And Makandal with Master Drummer Frisner Augustin was part of it. The magic of audio, video, and photography has taken this experience beyond memory. Documents like the ones on this page have the potential to educate and delight for generations down the line. Learn about Makandal’s Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive, and please contribute. Mèsi anpil! Thank you!
Photos by Chantal Regnault
Video shot and edited by Doctor Lois
Featured image: Detail of photo by Paul Martinka, West Indian Day Parade on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, September 7, 2015