Special to St. John Tradewinds by Ashley Winchester
Claude Williams made no fuss over arriving at the Caneel Bay apartments on time. A 10-plus-year veteran of the parade and a St. John resident since 1965, Williams knows the drill, and knows it will be hours before he needs to get in costume. He spent the previous night at Parisville, dancing and enjoying the music until 2 a.m., and seems to be just waking up.
At 11:30 a.m., it’s anyone’s guess when Caneel Bay Resort’s floupe will begin its leg of the parade — there are 46 entries ahead of it — but no one seems to mind. Williams and at least a dozen other half-costumed members of the floupe are lolling outside the apartments near the V.I. National Park Visitor’s Center, casually sipping Heinekens and watching the float preparations down the hill.
Parade Never Starts on Time
“They say it starts at 11, but it never does,” Celine Joseph, one of the floupe organizers, says as she does a head count. Many of the performers have not arrived.
Near Mongoose Junction, Anthony Felix, one of the designers, is preening over his creation. The centerpiece of the float is a large green iguana and steel pan player made of recycled materials, including lampshades, ice cream containers and green pool carpeting, he explains.
“This is all from the garbage,” Felix says with pride, flashing his gold upper tooth and showing a tourist how a mattress pad, painted green, became the iguana’s scales. “It took a week to put together, maybe two to formulate.”
The floupe, according to the official entry form, “pays tribute to all musicians whose music touches our lives in various ways, without which the world would be a very sad planet. The message is the music, let the music play, let go, be free, be healed and enjoy life.” The float and costumes are inspired by the “musical cultural blend” of the Caribbean.
Eventually, Felix joins the group outside the apartments. There’s no hurry. “At this point in time, it is going according to plan,” he says. Several bands begin to play, but all are still lined up along the street. By noon, the only fully-costumed performers of the Caneel troupe are parade first-timers, including resort manager Nikolay Hotze, who is canvassing the area and energizing the group. The first of the parade cars slowly inch onto the route, and the Caneel performers grab another beer.
Hours later, the group is getting restless in the midafternoon heat. “Are you doing the food?” someone asks a bystander. Soon, a truck arrives with fish, fried chicken, rice, bread and johnnycake for the Caneel participants. Williams, the resort’s assistant chef, can’t help but observe the procession. He stands, lanky in his green runner’s shorts and white t-shirt, and quietly surveys the food line.
By about 3 p.m., the atmosphere changes. Williams knows his cue, and rises from his perch on a curb to rustle together his costume. He is all business. At the side of the apartment, costume designer Stephen Derek is making some last-minute adjustments to the ensemble, an impressive peacock-like spread of reds and golds decorated with carefully fashioned musical notes and miniature pan drums, that Williams will carry on his back. Some pieces – arm and wrist cuffs, a belt – are stapled on.
“It weighs maybe 15, 20 pounds,” Williams notes.
The St. John carnival parade, Derek says, maintains its cultural roots and traditions more than parades in his native Trinidad or other Caribbean islands. Each festival is different, but the St. John one “shows the creativity of the people,” he says. “The imagination of the people is something I cherish. We are not going to be here forever, and this is something we have to pass on.”
The performers scramble to line up behind the float as Derek makes a final assessment and Williams dons his headpiece.
“It represents something,” Williams says of his costume.
“You’re something special,” Hotze assures him before lining up with the rest of the dancers.
Williams, transformed, joins the troupe behind the float and the performance is underway. He beams at the crowd as he turns and shuffles with the beat. Williams says the heat doesn’t bother him. He is energized by the rhythm of the band, and has no fear.
“Listening to the music gives me the drive,” he says. “Jumping around in the heat, it’s fun.”
The route, a short few blocks around downtown Cruz Bay, lasts about an hour and a half of animated, improvised dancing. After the parade, the Caneel troupe is ready to pack up and leave, but Williams has other plans for the evening. “The Village,” he says with a demure smile. “It’s the last night.”