"This song reminds me of waking to the morning sun in Jamaica, looking out over the deep blue water and just having a good time," sighed Carlton Drummond as he listened to a crooner at the American Folklife Festival on the Mall.
Other West Indians in the Caribbean Crafts tent felt the same way. Some sang along with the vocalist and many moved their shoulders gently to the soft strains of "Island in the Sun," a paean to the grace and beauty of West Indian life.
Others performing daily in the tent include a dance group, a fire-eater, a stick-fighter, a brass band and steel drummers. All are exponents of West Indian traditions that have permeated U.S. culture, especially on the East Coast, in the last generation.
Reggae music, goat and chicken curry, the political rhetoric and idealism of Marcus Garvey and Stokely Carmichael and the fun and ritual of the annual festival called Carnival have become part of the American consciousness.
"We've contributed our part to America," said Drummond, a political science student and president of the Jamaican National Association of Washington, D.C.
Drummond, who migrated here seven years ago from his father's farm outside Montego Bay, is one of an estimated 15,000 West Indians in the Washington area. They've come from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad-Tobago, Haiti, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Grenada.
Most have settled in New York and Boston, but the stream of West Indians into Washington has remained steady. Mostly, they come for educational and economic opportunities.
Those who moved to Washington in the 1950s and 1960s have made their adjustment. "They were well-trained, ready for college," said Nigel Scott, past president of the Trinidad-Tobago Association of Washington and a Howard Law School graduate.
Like all immigrants, said Scott, while watching the National League baseball playoffs, West Indians had their absorption difficulties. But help-ing to ease the transition has been a network of nationalist associations for Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians and Haitians.
Also, black Americans and West Indians, economic and political rivals in some circles, have in recent years reached a new understanding that is fraternal in spirit.
But the more recent West Indian immigrants have come as domestics, and that has meant, in many cases, severe adjustment problems.
"The mores and customs here in America are freer than those in the West Indies," said Dr. Toussaint Celestine, a psychiatrist of Haitian ancestry who practices at Howard University Hospital. "Dating practices are strict in the West Indies. It's unheard of for a 14-year-old girl to date." That's why, he said, when a 14-year-old started dating here, her father threatened to throw her out of the house.
West Indians also have strict attitudes about abortions and narcotics, Dr. Celestine said. "Religion is not as lax there as it is here."
A little bit of home makes the adjustment easier for anyone. As a result, two Jamaican night clubs, the Caribe II and the Turntable, have opened. And two Jamaican grocery stores, Montego Bay Imports and the Coronation Market, serve the West Indian community. Also offering digestive comfort are restaurants like Diana's, Rita's and the Islander. And for the ear, Caribbean music issues forth from WPFW-FM and WHUR-FM once a week.
West Indians share the same traditions, particularly if they speak the same language. Jamaicans, Barbardians and Trinidadians all speak English and have a common heritage in British colonialism and training. The same goes for French-speaking Haitians and Martiniquans.
The cross-cultural influences prevailed at the Folklife Festival. Moving sensually, the Big Drum Nation Dance Company of Brooklyn, all dressed in bold yellow, red and blue outfits, performed a dance portraying three women lavishing their favors on one man. Each woman lifted her skirt and passed slowly over the man lying prone.
Next came Oscar Anstey of Quebec, who thrilled the audience with his fire-eating skills. He also walked on nails to the accompaniment of a brass band. And to prove that his act was genuine, Anstey invited members of the audience to follow him. Several began; none finished.
The bright color and pageantry of a Carnival, masquerade costumes, steel band music and stick fighters, will be on display Saturday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. in the grand parade at the festival site, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
The West Indies, the archipelago of islands more than 1,000 miles in length between North and South America, were settled by the Spanish in the late 15th century. Soon afterward, West African slaves were brought there. And then came the trading companies and settlers of France, England and Holland.
Self-government came for many of the island nations in the mid-20th century. Even before that West Indians were beating a path to countries like France and England. The gush of immigrants came to this country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Almost immediately friction erupted between black Americans and West Indians over jobs and politics. Writer Ralph Ellison once charged that even though Stokely Carmichael was born and raised in this country, his West Indian background clouded his understanding of the intricacies of black-white relations in the U.S.
Drummond said that at first he found it hard to understand color prejudice here. "So I talked with some older men who had grown up in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi and they gave me the benefit of their experience."
Not everyone was so discreet. Leo Edwards, a former Howard professor and now a director of the Caribbean American Intercultural Organization, said when he came here in 1948 as a Howard student, some West Indians used their privileges as non-Americans to enter racially segregated theaters and stores in downtown Washington. This sort of behavior raised the ire of black Americans who were barred from such places.
"But in the 1960s, black Americans were looking for models and they looked to Africa and the West Indies," said Edwards.
The independence movement in the West Indies and the civil rights movement in the United States played off each other, and black Americans and West Indians came to see each other as brothers and sisters, not rivals.
But along with their drive toward assimiliation, West Indians still worry about losing their West Indian "souls" and passing traditions on to their children. Many long for home.
"I dream of returning to Trinidad," said Scott.
"It's the hope of all Jamaicans to return to the island in the sun," said Drummond. "Poeple want their native fruits, fresh air and good fish. I want to eventually go back."