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 International Cultural 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 learn about the history and role of Carnival and masquerade in West Indian communities in the Caribbean and here in Hartford. This “mas 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, 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 often-elaborate structures. The group also creates spectacular large-scale Queen and Junior Queen costumes.

The young people form a Carnival “Band” they call the Exotic One’s, with many local volunteers making up sections of masqueraders in different color schemes portraying a theme they choose. Working together with a dance instructor, 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 volunteer performers at the Taste of the Caribbean and Jerk Festival at the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s block party, and at the West Indian Independence Day Parade and Bushnell Park Festival. The project extends its reach to a different audience through a multi-media exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society, where the Mas tradition and the teens’ work can be seen by schoolchildren and other visitors to the museum.

In addition to the hundreds of costumes added to Hartford’s West Indian Independence Parade over the years, 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 Camp: Carnival Costumes Summer Youth Project has been supported by Community Renewal Team; Our Piece of the Pie; the Ensworth Foundation, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee; Defining Studios, City of Hartford Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Connecticut Office of the Arts/DECD; the Greater Hartford Arts Council; the West Indian Foundation; the Hartford Courant,; Ellen M. Brown; the Institute for Community Research; and the Connecticut Historical Society.

Information on the 2019 exhibit, Mas: Costumes from Hartford’s West Indian Community, can be found here.

If you would like to be contacted about participating in future Mas Camps, please email Kate Schramm, Kate_Schramm@chs.org.

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