Join In The Bacchanalia

“Indicator left … indicator right … indicator left … indicator right.” The lyrics of one of the season’s hottest Calypso songs pipe through oversized speakers installed on flatbed trucks as a wave of costumed revelers dance, hands moving left to right. It’s Carnival, and the parade is pulsating through the streets of downtown Charlotte Amalie in St.Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s eye candy for the parade’s many spectators, but to the participants the experience is almost spiritual.

For this St. Thomas carnival I want to play Mas (Caribbean patois for masquerade), with the fantasy of being a centurion in shiny armor and a flowing red cape, complete with a plumed metallic Roman helmet. I figure the outfit will be a perfect fit for one of the more than 50 costumed bands participating in the Adults Parade on the last day of the month-long celebration in May. My inquiry to several Mas camps, where the costumes are made, is met with blank expressions. No bands are considering a Roman theme this year. So, I decide to join the 300-member Elskoe and Associates troupe, which has performed for over four decades, winning 40 awards — including 34 first-place prizes.

The troupe informs me that my Roman fantasy is some 40 years late. “This band began in 1957 with 37 members portraying Romans,” says Dorothy Elskoe, a band founder and the troupe’s recently retired president. This year the troupe’s theme is “All That Glitters,” in keeping with the celebration of St. Thomas Carnival’s golden anniversary. Male band members don nylon genie pants and golden headbands. Women have a choice of several feathered and sequined costumes, complete with chiffon trains and abundantly feathered headpieces, all coordinated according to the seven sections the band is presenting.

It’s pouring rain on Carnival morning, which delays the start time by an hour, but the deluge doesn’t deter participation or enthusiasm. Through the bouts of rain and sun, the fete ushers in majorette troupes and the elaborately costumed Moko Jumbies, who make their way through the crowd on stilts. They are followed by a float carrying the reigning Carnival king and queen. This year, however, there are 50 kings and queens, representing each celebratory year. The first heirs to the monarchy were Leo and Carmen Sibilly. Crowned in 1952, they were married two years later. Today, with six children and six grandchildren, Leo and Carmen are just as charismatic. Their arrival in a stretch convertible draws loud and spirited applause from the crowds. A real life Carnival love story is still unfolding.

The sound of the Rising Stars Steel Pan Orchestra is met with shouts of joy. The melodic percussion of rubber-tipped wood sticks beating circular indentations on the steel drums is a treat to watch and listen to. The band perches on a gaily decorated two-story float that rocks with excitement.

Following the float are the costumed bands, whose movements are carefully choreographed. As I dance with the members of my band, I feel the rhythms literally possess my body, moving it almost hypnotically down