Historical West End Masqueraders

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An Interview with Asta Williams, By Denise Bennerson

During an interview with  Ms. Asta Williams, a cultural icon, historian, story teller, arts and craft extraordinaire, and owner and director of West End Masqueraders, she stated…

Culture is the thing you live. The down-to-earth way you live, your food, your customs, the things you learn from your parents a long time ago – don’t let them die. I feel that once a person knows where they are coming from, then they know where they are going and that’s the way I look at culture.

I enjoy my historical culture: food and clothing. The way we dress, style our hair, and our attitude are the things our grandparents and our mothers, would once in a while pass this information onto their children.

When I was very young there were organizations named Bright Hour Circle and The Unity Social Club that my mother was a member of. They did cultural dances, foods and picnics, stuff like that. The churches also had picnics where people got together and shared culture. That does not happen anymore.

ashta-williamsWhat we do now is mostly around Christmas time. We shared with neighbors. That’s not so anymore. Things have changed drastically. When I was growing up we had a thing that people did if you want to start your coal pot. You would go to your neighbor for a piece of their old charcoal to start yours. Also clothes were shared with the disadvantaged.

Clothing was ordered from Walter Fields, Sears-Roebuck, National Bellas Hess and Aldens catalogs and when it got a little small, you passed it on to your neighbor for their child.

I was given a neighbor’s child dress to wear. After washing and ironing, I wore it to Sunday school. An older lady stood on the corner and told all the other children that were passing by, “You see that dress she has on? That is so-and-so’s dress.” I went home screaming to my mother and vowed to never wear anybody else’s clothes again.

My grandmother liked to dance. The children and other family members used to go to tea meetings in Cumberland Castle on Kings Street, right across from the Nesbit’s. Your parents
never left you home alone. Children also went with parents to picnics and Quadrille dances in St. Gerard’s Hall or St. Paul’s Hall.

Before I got into the Masqueraders, I had a little group in Harrigan Court. I ran summer programs for the children and I took them to the beach, basketball games, taught them to sew, cook, had Easter functions, bus rides to Channel 8 when Rogers participated in it.

Then I started with having a troop after having a Queen show. I got four girls, they ran and my daughter won because she sold the most tickets. The others were ladies in waiting.

Then I had another troop “Gems of Africa” with girls from Walter Hodge, Marley, and Harrigan Court. I was invited to join a Masquerade group with my grandfather, Aunt Eliza McBean. We all used to dance. My father, Daniel O’Benjamin Hanley, played the guitar, banjo and mandolin and one of my brothers played the drums.

The lady who started the Masqueraders didn’t want it anymore and I took it over – that was over 15 years ago. I had a lot of young people like KC and some continue telling stories.

I am also a storyteller. We had three donkeys. You learn lots of things to be an entrepreneur to make a living for your children.

I started out with my group then I branched out to Claude O. Markoe School which had a wonderful group and I was the Food Service worker.

I danced at Ricardo Richards School for the children as a Masquerader. I also told stories and danced at Lew Muckle School, in addition to dancing when the cruise ships came in the evening time during “Harbor Night” in Frederiksted.

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The main things of Masquerader’s costume are they must have strips to identify us as not being rich – we use what we have around the house to make the strips. The Masqueraders came from the slaves that came in from Africa, it was a way of “letting down their hair,” as they call it – so they had many different types of Masqueraders.

Early laborers, early Crucians like my great-great-grandparents, that’s the way they did it on the estate and they had it during their holidays – Easter Monday and With Mondays when they were not working, they would dress to mimic the “Massa” or the “Misses,” they look like the “Gendam” (Gendarmerie – an armed police officer in France) or they look like the “fair lady” the lady in the house. They would wear the ugly mask so you can’t see their faces; it is somewhat like a society from Africa.

Masquerading means hiding your true identity and those on the roadside are not supposed to call names when we are in costume, I never answered.

If you touch me it is a different thing then I will give you a nod or a bow as I recognize you, but don’t stand aside like some people do and scream out my name I will never answer because masquerading is one of those things identity is not known similar to the Mocko Jumbies and Masqueraders out of Africa. The Mocko Jumbies are the people who protect the village from the evil spirits near the hills because they walk on sticks so they can see evil spirits, which make people sick or do evil stuff while the Masquerades guard the village on the ground.

When I got older, I used to see my mother making and wearing the wire mask. Masqueraders used the wire mask because it is so hot and they need room to breathe. One time I had on a lot of stuff on my head and I passed out. We used the burlap bag and it kept you very hot. Clothing is made much lighter. Some people joined and never stayed with the Masqueraders because we have on too much clothing.

So we had a small group of 5 to 6 people. CHANT – Crucian Heritage And Nature Tourism supports us. They contribute a truck during the parade with water and fruits. We don’t have money for bands so we create our own music during the parade. I use a squash and others carry their instruments and we have fun coming down the road.

We are known as the West End Masqueraders, the name came from a function held by Our Town Frederiksted and a West End reunion, also involved was a West End Quadrille group. I don’t charge for people coming into the group and I show them how to make the costume. There’s no practice, I explain what they need to do, you dance with a Jig and we carry a stick or whip, wear your hat and white long sleeves. At the reviewing stand we do a circular dance and keep a rhythm we don’t have a specific routine – historically Masqueraders never had a routine.

I don’t know what will happen to Masqueraders in the future, because many young people are not interested, since we don’t show skin. I’ve always been involved in arts and crafts and I always believed that people can develop things where they don’t have to hold anybody up to make a living. That’s why I’ve always been involved in arts and crafts and storytelling. I used to go to 4-H extension service when Ms. Murphy and Ms. Brown were there. I went all over this place to learn arts and crafts. As a person I like to be free, tell my stories and do my arts and crafts.

When I dance for a group and I sometimes get paid for example by the Department of Agriculture and Tourism. If people would like to contribute a yard of material I will accept plain and plaid material.

Contact West End Masqueraders to perform at your wedding or other event and for storytelling 340-772-4383. We also Plait the Maypole and produce cultural products such as masks and stewed fruits.

All photos of Ms. Asta Williams and the Historical West End Masqueraders courtesy of Denise Bennerson.

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