The West Indian Day Parade is one of the largest parades held annually in New York City. A cavalcade of people in feathers and sequins proceeds down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, a wide boulevard two streets from where I live. It begins at dawn, dissipating only in the evening. I go late in the afternoon to see celebrants still dancing, the displays of miniature Caribbean flags sold to spectators forming exuberant structures. Festoons, tents and stalls crowd its length, with tropical fruits arrayed for refreshment.
This gathering of nations, with a shared heritage, colonial experience, and geography, started in Harlem in the 1930s, but has been held in the borough of Brooklyn since the 1960s, where most of New York’s Caribbean communities are concentrated today. The West Indian Day celebrations have roots in the islands’ Afro-Creole tradition, opening with J’Ouvert: daybreak revelry with dancers in body paint. In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s associated with the emancipation of the enslaved and the defiant joy of liberation.
There are a surprising number of parallels between Trinidad and Tobago and Malaya. They both share the same independence day: August 31st, but five years apart (Malaya: 1957; Trinidad and Tobago: 1962). They belong respectively to the Caribbean and South-east Asia, the world’s two largest equatorial archipelagoes, which at some periods in history shared the same name: the West and East “Indies”.
Our geographies—little islands juxtaposed with larger oceans and continents—have also generated similar experiences of racial encounter, assimilation and mixing. Listening to the Jamaican dancehall rhythms on Eastern Parkway reminded me that much mid-20th century Malay music—Singapore was a great centre of Malay culture then—was inspired by eclectic genres from the Caribbean archipelago: Cuban son and rumba especially, and the recordings of Havana bandleader Xavier Cugat. Miss Julia’s “Goreng Pisang” sounds a lot like Antonio Machìn’s “El Manisero”. Hispanic music continues to shape Malay youth culture today (I think of matreps’ fondness for Daddy Yankee in the early 2000s, and Puerto Rican reggaeton in Malay barber shops).
Those infectious beats came from a blending of peoples—African, European, Indigenous, Asian—mingling in the Caribbean islands through centuries of migration, colonialism, slavery and indenture. In the process, new and distinct ways of life came into being. Given the Caribbean’s proximity to the United States, their music spread to wherever the latter’s postwar imperial reach extended, like South-east Asia. New ears and bodies received those sounds. Music aside, we’re also enriched by the Caribbean’s intellectual tradition; theories on race by Frantz Fanon, the postcolonial writer from Martinique, are well-discussed at the Department of Malay Studies in the National University of Singapore.