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Frank Smith

Oral history interview conducted by Dwan Reece King

July 21, 1994

Call number: 2010.019.27

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KING: The clinks we hear in the background are the restaurant. We're sitting here at Junior's Restaurant on a very hot and muggy day. So, if we can just get started. Can you tell me where you're from?

SMITH: I'm from Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies.

KING: Okay. Did you grow up there? Did you spend most of your time growing up there?

SMITH: Yes, I grew up there. I came here when I was in my thirties.

KING: Okay. Why did you decide to move to New York?

SMITH: I decided to come to New York because my father was living here and he was getting old and I came to assist him.

KING: What were your first impressions of New York? Did you come to Brooklyn directly?

1:00

SMITH: Directly. I came directly from the airport to Brooklyn.

KING: Oh, you did. And what was your first impression?

SMITH: My first impression-- I was kind of scared.

KING: Why's that?

SMITH: Because was the first time in a big city, and looking at the--when you go to the cinema, seeing the buildings and so on and when you come to Brooklyn are two different things. So, I had to get adjusted to that type of environment.

KING: Okay. What's your connection with Carnival? How do you participate in Brooklyn's West Indian Carnival?

SMITH: I first-- Mr. Lezama asked me to bring my tent to the Brooklyn Museum, which I did. And so I got deeply involved with the Carnival.

2:00

KING: Now when you say tent, is this a calypso tent?

SMITH: It's a calypso tent. They call it tent, but it's really men that are singing, and anywhere that the calypsonians are performing is considered a tent, a calypso tent.

KING: So did you do this prior to when Carnival was established in Brooklyn?

SMITH: No.

KING: You didn't?

SMITH: No.

KING: You didn't. Did you--so how did you start doing calypso--or why did Mr. Lezama approach you about starting up a tent in the first place? Or how did he find you?

SMITH: Well, Carnival in Trinidad, without calypso there's no Carnival, so they must have calypso with Carnival. Therefore he decided that due to the fact that I was doing the tent it would add a bit of flavor to the Carnival. So we decided to bring the tent in.

KING: Okay. So you were doing a tent before the Carnival officially started in Brooklyn?

3:00

SMITH: Correct.

KING: Can you tell me a little bit about what Carnival was like in Trinidad or how you participated there when you were growing up?

SMITH: Mainly--to be honest, my--the way I got myself involved in Carnival in Trinidad is by going to see exactly on the day, being a spectator. I never played mas in my life. But I love calypso. I always listen to calypso. From small I always promote, always was having some affair going, so therefore its part of me.

KING: So in bring a calypso tent were you just primarily the organizer or did you sing or participate or what did that actually mean?

SMITH: I had my business at the Rainbow Terrace and I promote the calypso music. 4:00I was a promoter.

KING: What do you do as a promoter?

SMITH: Organize calypso dance and singing.

KING: Okay. Did you ever participate in Harlem's Carnival before?

SMITH: No.

KING: No? Did you know of it? Were you aware of it?

SMITH: Yes, I was aware of it, but I never went to Harlem's.

KING: Any specific reason?

SMITH: No.

KING: It just didn't--

SMITH: No never, I participate in Brooklyn and there are so many calypsonians--calypso itself was now coming to New York.

KING: Right, around--

SMITH: And that's the reason that I honestly got involved with calypso, calypsonians. Sparrow, and Koko and all these guys started in my band. The best.

5:00

KING: Okay. How have you-- have you been promoting for Carnival ever since it started in Brooklyn?

SMITH: Yes.

KING: Okay. So how has it changed over the years?

SMITH: Well, I really can't tell--say exactly the changes. I really haven't seen any. All I know is that there are more people coming to the Carnival, and that's about it.

KING: How has your job changed over the years or the calypso tents or the people who get involved?

SMITH: Well, honestly there were no changes at all. Everything was just the same. No changes. And people every year they became bigger and bigger.

KING: Became bigger and bigger? So who are some of the acts that you promote today? Who do you promote today as far as--or how does--if you were telling somebody exactly what it is that you do when you bring in tents for Carnival, 6:00how would you describe that?

SMITH: I would describe it--at home, we would say in Trinidad, the formal, what you call a calypso tent, you seek out the best calypsonians plus the young calypsonians to give them a chance in life and you put them together and you call it a tent. That's what I do.

KING: So the people that participate, is it different every year?

SMITH: It is different every year.

KING: It is?

SMITH: Different, different singers. Young singers coming up who would like to have a chance to make a showcase, showcase them so that people will hear. That's the way. And I brought up a lot of calypso music.

KING: Do you seek people out or do they seek you out, or is it kind of a little bit of both?

SMITH: They come to me and ask me to give them a chance and I definitely give 7:00that, give a lot of that to bands.

KING: Okay, well let's stop for a little bit because I want you to get a chance to eat your food while it's still hot, so we're going to temporarily suspend this interview, but we shall return.

KING: Okay, we're continuing the interview with Frank Smith. I just want to ask you a few questions about Carnival and your participation in it. We've already established what you do, you promote and you bring calypso tents to Carnival. Are there other ways that you participate come Labor Day with the other festivities that go on?

SMITH: A couple years ago I tried to bring out my own kind of world band.

KING: Okay.

SMITH: I did try. And that's the only time in all the years that I took that chance.

KING: How did that work out?

SMITH: I lost a lot of money.

KING: Oh, did you?

SMITH: Yes.

KING: So you probably haven't done it since then?

8:00

SMITH: No, I haven't done it since then. I'll leave it to someone who has the knowledge. I am a promoter of calypso, and not a calypso band--no not a calypso band, a Carnival band organizer.

KING: Oh, what was the hardest part about trying to organize a band?

SMITH: Getting people to work for you, cause I cannot do that type of work, making costumes…

KING: Costumes?

SMITH: That was the hardest part. You have to depend on these people. Whatever they say you do or you're in trouble.

KING: Now did you try to look for people locally or did you go elsewhere?

SMITH: Local--men in Brooklyn that know about making costumes.

KING: Um hm. So did you get to march in the parade or it just--?

SMITH: Yes. We did go to Eastern Parkway, but we had a little misfortune, the 9:00music breaking down and all kinds of problems.

KING: Oh, so you said "no more"?

SMITH: So I said "no more". Stick to what you can do.

KING: So when you do the calypso tents, how do they fit in with the Labor Day Carnival? Where do they set up? What day are they around, every day or can you just tell me--?

SMITH: Well, before Labor Day comes; a week before Labor Day;, Labor Day is the climax, some nights before Labor Day, every night we have a tent open and calypsonian singers. And the last night, which is the Friday night, that is the climax of Carnival and then we go into the Carnival the following day.

KING: Okay.

SMITH: No Carnival, no part of the whole will be successful unless they have a 10:00tent at the climax.

KING: Right, right. Now do you go to Trinidad on a regular basis or just to see what's going on there or--?

SMITH: No, to be honest.

KING: Really? When's the last time you've been down there?

SMITH: About two years ago.

KING: Okay. Now, do you go to other carnivals?

SMITH: Yes.

KING: Which ones?

SMITH: Brazil.

KING: Brazil?

SMITH: Yes.

KING: And I saw something on your service station that you've organized a bus tour to Toronto?

SMITH: Yes, I have. This is my sixteenth year on my own. After 20 years I am going to the Carnival with a different organization.

KING: How would you compare Toronto's Carnival with the one here in Brooklyn?

SMITH: Toronto Carnival right now is organized in a way that they--the facility 11:00they have--which is a stadium which we don't have here; so you can take a mas into the stadium; that is the best way the Carnival is organized in Toronto, having the stadium.

KING: I've heard talk that people are interested in trying to have some kind of stadium here for Brooklyn's Carnival, that people think--the suggestion is how Carnival can move into the twenty first century, that there needs to be a stadium, or then there are other people who say that maybe they should just lengthen the parade route, but other kind of alternatives. Do you have any perspective on that?

SMITH: Well, I would suggest, if they have a stadium, and bands could go into the stadium, people could sit and enjoy the bands. On the streets, so crowded-- 12:00or everybody mixing into the band, you cannot see or appreciate the bands. And this is Brooklyn mas. Everybody is in the band.

KING: Trinidad's Carnival, is it in a stadium or is it outdoors?

SMITH: In Trinidad, there's a big park where the bands, when the bands go on stage there's no one there but, there's the costumes. On the street also people are not allowed to go into the band on the street night, it's being roped around and they have guards and so on so everybody's outside the band.

KING: But that's something that's harder to control here I guess.

SMITH: It's very hard to control here in New York, yes.

KING: Hmmm. Well what are the things--what does Carnival mean to you as, you 13:00know, being someone from Trinidad and part of your culture?

SMITH: Well Carnival means a lot to me. Due to the fact I grew up seeing Carnival and look forward to it every year. It's a big festival. It's a time when everybody can nap and give off the hot air. Well, I love my Carnival.

KING: Do you think it gets enough respect in New York City, or recognition I should say?

SMITH: So far I think they are getting enough respect, but the only thing that I said is the control, meaning that the public--there's no control, they just do what they want: go in to the band and show up and disorganize them. They cannot see the beauty of the mas. There's not the respect I would say in New York.

14:00

KING: So how would you solve--if you were asked for a solution to that problem, what would you suggest?

SMITH: Going to the routes that we have at present, I don't see how you could stop that. Thousands of people in the street, I think it's very hard to stop that.

KING: I would guess that it's hard because it's a public thoroughfare--

SMITH: It's a public thoroughfare.

KING: and how could you stop people from--

SMITH: from taking part in it.

KING: Who, in your opinion, are the most important people involved in Carnival?

SMITH: Well so far Mr. Lezama, Joyce Quamina, I would think, I consider myself; leaders in the Carnival.

15:00

KING: So do you work closely with WIADCA or are you--what relationship do you have?

SMITH: Yes. Yes, I have a good relationship with them. Many years I been, as I said before, I took part with [unintelligible].

KING: How about your children? Are they involved? Are they interested? Do they like to attend Carnival? Your children or your grandchildren?

SMITH: Well, my children were born here--

KING: Yeah.

SMITH: --and they like the West Indian tastes of jumping up, so they do take part in Carnival.

KING: Do you find that they might have a different perspective than you do because they were born in the United States and not Trinidad?

SMITH: Well due to the fact that here at home we still maintain the culture, the habits, growing up, teaching them the right way, discipline, so they follow that 16:00way of life. I--

KING: Now do they play mas?

SMITH: No just jumping in the band.

KING: How about your wife, did she ever--?

SMITH: No.

KING: Just not the cup of tea.

SMITH: No. We've been married for 49 years. But I am the man who enjoys [unintelligible].

KING: Okay. Well is there anything else that you would like to say on the record about your experiences with Carnival or as a promoter, or any of your other activities?

SMITH: Well all I can wish is a harmonious group, the best for '94 and hope that in '95; where there were stumbling blocks in the way they built, to remove it 17:00and go forward. That's all I can say.

KING: Okay. Well, I think that ends the interview if you don't have anything else you want to include.

SMITH: No, not at present.

KING: Okay. Alright. Thank you very much.

KING: That was a false ending. We're going to continue the interview for a few more minutes, because I wanted to ask you a few more questions about some of your other activities. In reading this bio, it says something here that you established Rainbow Terrace can you tell me a little about that, what that is?

SMITH: Rainbow Terrace is a nightclub that I put together, due to the fact that there were no places suitable in the immigrant community of the country from the Caribbean, a decent place for them to go. There were only basements and so on. So I invested my money, but I never made any money, but I provided this, place, 18:00decent, to go.

KING: So the different acts come in and perform or just a place for people to gather?

SMITH: Different acts came in and we decided which calypsonians and American groups perform.

KING: Now how long did that go on, or is it still in existence?

SMITH: No, I had it, Rainbow Terrace, for over like 15 years.

KING: Okay. And you started that in 1978?

SMITH: Yeah.

KING: Okay. Alright. Would you mind sharing with me just--it seems like you have been very active in promoting West Indians in the community--and what's your perspective on the Caribbean community here in Brooklyn? I mean, what do you find is special about it, or its strengths?

19:00

SMITH: Well, I would say the reason why I'm interested in the West Indian community is because we are away, we are far away from home and try to keep close to each other, and the only way we can get or stay with each other is by promoting our culture. That was the main reason why.

KING: Is that one of the reasons why you settled in Brooklyn, because there are other people here as well?

SMITH: No, unfortunately in those days when I started, it was very, very hard, people had no money, and I was fortunate person and I worked very hard I was able to get my hands on some enterprises.

KING: Are there any other activities that you're working on that you would like to just share with me-- just some variety of things that you are doing.

SMITH: Well right now I am doing the Fulton Street Festival, twenty-five blocks 20:00from Classon Avenue to Flatbush Avenue, after Labor Day, the 18th of September. And what we do we use the masks from the Labor Day parade; get the big costumes, kings, queens and individuals.

KING: Oh, you do, okay.

SMITH: I don't do bands because I cannot carry.

KING: Oh, okay.

SMITH: So I just do costumes that look very, very beautiful, the different kings and queens costumes.

KING: So kind of like a continuation of--

SMITH: Yeah.

KING: Now have you been doing that for years or how long?

SMITH: No, this is my second year.

KING: Oh, okay.

SMITH: My second year and I also do calypso and have calypsonians performing and dances and so on, folk dances and different types of Caribbean culture.

21:00

KING: What was the idea behind this? What was the goal or the--

SMITH: There was no goal behind it. I just figured we should have something and I said I will have something different from Eastern Parkway, so I decided to do that type of event.

KING: Now is this, this, the Fulton Street--

SMITH: The Fulton Street Fest.

KING: The Fulton Street Fest, is that primarily for Caribbeans or for all peoples?

SMITH: No, it's multicultural.

KING: Multicultural?

SMITH: Yes.

KING: So you have other groups and organizations involved.

SMITH: Any group can come in. They're welcome.

KING: Sounds like a tremendous amount of work. Do you have people helping you?

SMITH: Yes I have some people helping me. It's a lot of work

KING: Was it hard to get started and get permission to get that going?

SMITH: If we--

KING: Was it hard to get started--?

SMITH: No, no, no. We got the permit easily and just put it together. And the 22:00first year it came up they were surprised and never thought we had something. And this year is going to be tremendous. Everybody's looking forward to coming.

KING: I look forward to coming. Is it for the weekend? Is there two days?

SMITH: No, just one day, Sunday.

KING: Sunday?

SMITH: Sunday.

KING: Okay, well I think that covers all the extra questions, so this time this really is the end.

SMITH: This is the real end.

KING: Okay. Thank you.

SMITH: You're welcome.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Frank Smith

Frank Smith was born in Trinidad & Tobago. He immigrated to the United States in his thirties to care for his father, who was residing in Brooklyn. A calypso promoter, Smith was a participant of the West Indian American Day Carnival as an organizer and promoter of tents and the locations in which the calypsonians performed. At the time of this interview in 1994, Smith had recently closed his nightclub the Rainbow Terrace (1978-1993), which showcased calypso and American performers.

In this interview Frank Smith recalls immigrating to the United States, his first impressions of Brooklyn, and his work as a promoter of calypso music for the West Indian American Day Carnival. Smith discusses changes he has seen in the Carnival, his attempts to coordinate a mas (masquerade) band, and his recruitment of talent for his calypso nightclub and the Carnival. He compares the Toronto Carnival, Caribana, to the Brooklyn Carnival, noting the differences and suggesting ways Brooklyn could better its participant route. Smith also discusses his use of mask and costumes from the Labor Day event to participate in the Fulton Street Festival. This event occurred approximately two weeks after the West Indian American Day Carnival. Interview conducted by Dwan Reece King.

The West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records include photographs, oral histories (audio and transcripts), publications and research, and ephemeral materials relating to the Carnival and the project itself. The materials were collected and created within the context of a documentation project undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1994, which later culminated in an exhibition. Exhibition materials are not included in the collection.

Citation

Smith, Frank, Oral history interview conducted by Dwan Reece King, July 21, 1994, West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records, 2010.019.27; Brooklyn Historical Society.

People

  • Smith, Frank
  • West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Topics

  • Caribbean Americans
  • Carnival
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Ethnic identity
  • Music
  • Parades
  • Trinidadian Americans

Places

  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
  • Toronto (Ont.)
  • Trinidad

Transcript

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Finding Aid

West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records