Published: July 5, 2012
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ST. JOHN - Sitting on the back of a flatbed truck to tie on stilts Wednesday afternoon, Nathan McLean forbade cell phone photos.
"We got to have the complete illusion," he said.
McLean and others were prepping their mocko jumbie costumes behind St. John National Park. It was one of the few corners of Cruz Bay where you could escape the lens of someone's camera as the St. John Festival parade wound through town at midday.
McLean, a Tortola native and member of the BVI Elite Sky Dancers, said the stilt-walking mocko jumbie dancers originated from African culture, in which the elevated mocko jumbies were thought to protect villages from evil spirits.
"Being that this festival is about celebrating freedom and freedom from slavery, we have to put some of that African culture from the past in it," he said.
McLean stands at 6 feet tall; the stilts added 5 feet, 5 inches, he said.
"Just write it off to about 12 feet in the sky," he said.
His troupe was one of more than a dozen that participated in the annual parade, which began just after noon and featured everything from baton-twirlers to beauty queens to steel pan drummers to tribal dancers.
The afternoon in Cruz Bay was punctuated with the smells of food, the sounds of calypso and steel pan music and the vibrant colors of Festival costumes.
Charles Matthew was leading a group of about 20 dancers of the King Shaka Zulu Nation, who were dressing in elaborate costumes and feathered headdresses. Troupe member Elaine Freeman donned a plume of ostrich and pheasant feathers.
"The Zulus were an elaborate people," Freeman said.
Matthew described his troupe as one of the crowd favorites, mixing its own music that combines Afrobeat and Serengeti influences with animal sounds.
"We keep it jungle," he said. "When you hear the lions roar, it gets you going."
Freeman drew a parallel between Tuesday's Emancipation Day celebration on St. Croix, commemorating enslaved West Indians' successful uprising in 1848, to the Fourth of July holiday Wednesday.
"There is Emancipation Day and then there is Independence Day, when the U.S. was released from the U.K. and became independent," she said, before launching into the opening lines of "Proud to Be an American."
While Matthew and Freeman were prepping, some revelers on St. John still were celebrating from J'ouvert earlier Wednesday morning. That event began officially at 4 a.m. but for many was simply the continuation of an all-night party.
"It is where the people let their hair down," Freeman said. "People wear anything from a nightgown to pajamas to other exotic costumes - which I won't describe. It's just about enjoying life and freedom and the rising of the sun."
Amy Larson, a ship captain moonlighting as a bartender at the Sugar Shack booth for the Festival, said she got off work from the Sugar Shack at 4 a.m. and soon found herself among the all-night party-goers. Donning a pink wig - and purple-dyed hair underneath - Williams said this year's J'ouvert topped others she has been to in her three years on the island because it included more steel drums and less bass-heavy speakers.
"That culture is more appealing," she said. "It's more what the island is about."
The full moon also helped, she said.
"Because it's a full moon, people think it makes you go crazy, but I've not seen anything bad happen," she said. "People were nice and lovey."
At least one group Wednesday morning was looking to create some good works from the flock of Festival attendees. Faye Fredericks and others at the Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church were frying johnnycakes, chicken and fish, and cooking pea soup and kalaloo to sell during the parade. The proceeds will benefit Sinodo del Caribe, a Puerto Rico- and Virgin Islands-based missionary group that supports causes for women and children, including a recent malaria-fighting campaign that purchased mosquito nets for African families, she said.
"Every year this has been a tradition," Fredericks said. "It's one of our major fundraisers."
Fredericks, a lifetime St. John resident, said she's watched the event grow during the years.
"Before, the parade would be over in 30 minutes - if you blink, you'd miss it," she said. "Now there's much more traffic because there's better transportation and bigger promotion."
Earlier in the day, St. Thomas native Ann Williams was waiting to catch the ferry to St. John. She said she's been going to the Festival since she was a young girl.
"My mom used to like to party," Williams said.
This year, Williams was heading over to Cruz Bay help a friend at a concession stand selling local fare, such as chicken legs, pates and tarts. But even working, Williams said, she loves coming to St. John.
"They say the islands are paradise, but St. John is truly the paradise," she said. "You have no choice but to relax. Just being there feels like heaven."