Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Jean Alexander interview

T&T cultural ‘ambassador’ Jean Alexander.

Photo: Glenville Ashby

We sometimes forget the dedication, foresight, and managerial skill needed to successfully coordinate an event as complexed and grand as Labour Day Carnival in Brooklyn. We savour the festivities, participate and revel in every moment. But behind the scenes are the less-sung heroes that made it all happen. Brooklyn’s largest ethnic event, which attracts more than two million people is upon us. It is only fitting that the tireless work of Jean Alexander—a true cultural ambassador of the Caribbean is recognised.
It is long overdue.

T&T Guardian: Your name has become synonymous with the Labour Day celebrations. Tell our readers a little about your work. JA: Well, I am the Director of Marketing and Public Relations. I started 34 years ago with the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, initially writing press releases. My role expanded to writing to corporations for funding.

T&T Guardian: I am sure getting sponsors must be one of the most challenging jobs, especially in this economy.
JA: Over the years the economy has fluctuated, and we as an organisation that depends on sponsorship from businesses, have done our best to weather the storm. For example, although many are saying that the worst of the recession is over, sponsors are still complaining about budget cuts...and that affects us. This year we got some funds from the state, but no help from the city

T&T Guardian: To successfully put together a show as spectacular as the weekend event, and then the grand finale which is Monday Mas, what are some of the figures we are looking at? JA: Jean Alexander: Expenses from August to September is over a million US dollars. Insurance for Carnival Monday alone is US$100,000. Then we have prize awards and then appearance fees for big names like Machel Montano. With just about US$300,000 from sponsors, you have an idea of just how tight things are…but we are still around. On Thursday of that big weekend we have a benefit with proceeds going to Haiti. Wyclef Jean and Kevin Little are expected to perform. They will not be charging an appearance fee but we still have to cover their expenses.

The New York Labour Day carnival parade
 makes its way along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
T&T Guardian: One criticism of WIADCA is that it is a Trinidad “ting.” This has come from many of the neighbouring Caribbean islands. How do you respond to such charges? JA: Well, the parade was started by Jessie Waddle, a Trinidadian in the 1920s in Harlem, where she brought the costumes and parade to the ballrooms. She was later given a permit to bring it to Lenox Avenue, also in Harlem. In 1965, it was moved to Brooklyn, spearheaded by another Trinidadian. So, we have been at the helm of the parade but we have, and I have personally, attempted to make this reflective of our Caribbean diversity. I have interacted with Caribbean Consulates throughout the years, inviting them to showcase their culture. I will continue to do so. Further, there are now more non-Trinis who are members of the Association than ever before. This is a step in the right direction.

T&T Guardian: You have been a true cultural stalwart. What drives you?JA: Carnival is in my blood. I remember being offered the Assistant Commissioner of Immigration position under Rudolph Giuliani, at a time when I needed the money. I was told that I would have to give up this position, which mind you is non-paying. It was a difficult decision but I could not give this up.

T&T Guardian: What is the future of West Indian mas in Brooklyn? JA: We are seeing a high level of dedication to the art form. There have been complaints that the art is dying with so many skimpy costumes out there. But this is not necessarily so. At the Caribbean American Center of New York, where I am executive director, we hired Neville Martin to run a programme on the art of costume making. In fact, it was more than that. It was really about the vision behind making a mas band—creating, researching, and designing. It was very well received. 
T&T Guardian: Do you have any particular message for the people here, and in T&T? JA:I would really like to see the Caribbean governments make better use of the exposure that comes with being part of Labour Day Carnival. Last year we began streaming, and there was great feedback from places like Sweden, Belfast, and Japan. It’s time for our governments to recognise this incredible potential.
Editor’s note: Glenville Ashby is a New York correspondent and columnist for the T&T Guardian.

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