Mas: Carnival Costumes from Hartford’s West Indian Community Teaching and performing Caribbean Carnival traditions

Since 2011, the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program has partnered with the Connecticut Caribbean International Carnival Association to offer an annual summer youth employment program that trains Hartford youth in Carnival traditions central to their ethnic background. Mas (short for masquerade) represents an important and beloved art form in the West Indian communities that make up a vibrant component of Hartford’s population. The teen participants—22 in 2015—learn about the history and role of Carnival and masquerade in West Indian communities in the Caribbean and here in Hartford. The Mas summer training camp highlights West Indian traditions and supports Hartford’s teens by teaching them about their cultural heritage while building their job skills.

“Carnival is very important to our Caribbean community, and through it the teens learn to think conceptually, work in teams, meet deadlines and gain confidence, skills that they can use in other areas,” said Mas program co-director Linford “Junior” Miller, director of the Connecticut International Cultural Carnival Association. Supported by Miller, master costume maker Keimani “Q” Delpeche, artistic educators Tanya Bynoe, Clerona Cain, and Lerry Cooper  along with volunteer educators and parents, each teen in the Mas program designs and builds a complete costume, including headpiece, arm and foot bands, girdles, collars, backpacks, and all frames and attachments needed for wearing the elaborate structures. The group also creates spectacular large-scale Queen and Junior Queen costumes.

The young people form a Carnival “Band” called the Exotic Ones, with many local volunteers making up nine sections of masqueraders in different color schemes portraying a theme they choose—“Hollywood in Colors” in 2015. Trained by instructor Clerona Cain, the teens develop their own dance routine for “displaying” their costumes in a parade setting, just as it would be done in Trinidad. Each August the costumes created through this project are worn by the students and over 70 volunteer performers at the Taste of the Caribbean and Jerk Festival at the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, at the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s block party, and at the West Indian Independence Day Parade and Bushnell Park Festival. The project extended its reach to a different audience through a multi-media exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society in 2015, where the Mas tradition and the teens’ work can be seen by schoolchildren and other visitors to the museum.

In addition to the 100+ costumes added to Hartford’s West Indian Independence Parade, the project teaches job readiness skills, collaboration and teamwork, movement, creativity, and cultural knowledge. Many of the participants receive their first paycheck ever through this project. Several graduates have become project leaders in subsequent years, and many enter higher education.

The Mas Project has been supported by the City of Hartford Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Connecticut Office of the Arts/DECD, the Hartford Courant,  Ellen M. Brown, the Institute for Community Research, and the Connecticut Historical Society.

Information on the 2015 exhibit, Mas: Costumes from Hartford’s West Indian Community, can be found here.