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50-plus bands anchor the West Indian American Day Carnival

SkyMaxx Mas co-band leader Deandra Beach, left, and

SkyMaxx Mas co-band leader Deandra Beach, left, and founder Kison Ventour with one of the costume prototypes at their mas camp site in Canarsie, Brooklyn. This is the SkyMaxx band's first year participating in the West Indian American Day Carnival. Their theme is "Fantasy Is..." Photo Credit: Kaara Baptiste

It doesn’t get any bolder, brighter or bigger than the annual West Indian American Day Carnival, held in Brooklyn.

Every Labor Day, since 1969, a stretch of the borough’s Eastern Parkway is engulfed in a massive Caribbean lovefest, powered by music, mouthwatering food and eye-catching costumes. The sultry and festive get-ups that masqueraders don as they dance along the parade route are the carnival’s trademark.

But getting thousands of people in formation for the largest Caribbean celebration in the country is not easy. Those few hours of pageantry are a culmination of several months and thousands of dollars of preparation.

“Most people have no idea what it takes,” says Wesley Millington, the St. Vincent-born leader of Mas Productions Unlimited, a children’s masquerade band.

Mas bands — the parade’s main attraction — are groups of anywhere from 50 to over 300 costumed revelers. Dedicated volunteers run the bands, organizing production, registration, sound systems and security. There are over 50 bands registered to participate in this year’s festivities, including 28 children’s bands, according to the West Indian American Day Carnival Association.

For band leaders, the road to the parade begins as soon as the previous year’s bash wraps up.

“You might take a month off to [recoup], but then you have to start planning,” says Kison Ventour, the Grenadian founder and leader of the new SkyMaxx mas band.

The first order of business is finding a theme for next year’s costumes.

“There are a lot of bands out there,” Ventour, 39, says. “Most likely they’ve done everything, so you have to think of something different.”

SkyMaxx will display “Fantasy Is…,” with representations of phoenixes, mermaids and goddesses.

Theme in hand, leaders find designers to make prototypes, hoping their creativity will produce a fusion of color, feathers, wire and sparkle that capture the chosen theme. Bands recruit from all over. Kaios International enlists designers from Japan, Miami, London, as well as local talent, says band leader, Tamera George-Khalifa.

“We recruit through social media,” she says. “We give them time to figure things out, as long as it’s according to the theme.”

Kaios’ “What Lies Beneath: Hidden Treasures of the Sea” divides masqueraders among seven sections inspired by sea goddesses, fish and plants.

In addition to getting costumes, production space, music, vehicles, food and security for the parade, band leaders fundraise — via parties, food sales, boat rides — throughout the year.

“It’s very expensive to get this whole production on the road,” says George-Khalifa, 40, who has led Kaios for three years. “It can easily cost anywhere between $15,000 to $20,000.”

By early summer, the bands launch showcases to reveal their themes and costumes to the public and recruit masqueraders. Around this time, mas camps — the bands’ production sites — pop up around the city wherever groups can find space to work and store materials. Suddenly vacant storefronts, industrial spaces and basements feature rows of costumed mannequins, pulsating soca and calypso and volunteers assembling outfits.

The countdown to the parade begins in earnest as participants commit to bands and pay for costumes, which range from $300 to $750, depending on the intricacy of the design.

With so many bands and alluring costume options, securing masqueraders can be difficult, says Deandra Beach, 32, Belizean co-band leader for SkyMaxx. “Everybody is shopping around, looking for the cheapest price,” she adds, noting some wait until the last minute.

The two weeks before the parade intensify with last-minute preparations.

“I don’t sleep,” says George-Khalifa, a Brooklyn native with Trinidadian roots. “We are not outsourcing. We’re sitting down, hand-gluing gems … sewing pieces, one by one.”

Late nights and glue-gun burns aside, the months of planning pay off the day of the parade, when masqueraders and spectators enjoy themselves, says George-Khalifa.

“You can look and see, this is what we worked so hard for,” she says. 

And it’s why band leaders like Ventour will be back after Monday’s parade.

“It’s not something we do because we like it; it’s something we do for the love of it," Ventour says.


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