Boston has one of the biggest Black West Indian communities, particularly in the areas of Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, where some of the best West Indian establishments can be found. Each year, people gather to participate and attend the Carnival Festival, which brings together bands, DJs, dancers, models, and dressmakers.

We caught up with Nikisha Cummings and Michael Gabriel of Happiest Band Alive, Boston's only inclusive J'ouvert band. J'ouvert is a slow-moving parade in which some participants wear headpieces with horns and masks, cover themselves with black paint and oil, and dance down Talbot to Blue Hill Avenue all the way to Columbia Road.

We spoke to the band members about how they got introduced to Boston's Caribbean music scene, who is pushing the scene to new heights, and their advice for newcomers. We also laced them and their crew up in the all-new adidas Originals Forum, which is the inspiration behind our Forum series that deep dives into eight cities across the U.S. and examines various subcultures and the communities behind them.

In Conversation With Nikisha Cummings

How were you introduced to Caribbean Dancehall/J'ouvert in Boston?

I was introduced to Dancehall from my father, who is from Jamaica. Riding with him, he’d always play music.He used to throw stage shows with live Reggae performers as well. I could never do the accent when I was younger lol. I was introduced to Boston Carnival from my Trinidadian Mother and her parents. My grandmother was a costume designer for J'ouvert and carnival back in the day so I grew up participating in both carnival and J'ouvert.

How did you find friends within the scene?

I met a lot of kids growing up as they were friends of the family’s grandchildren/children. We’d play at the big outdoor calypso/reggae shows. Once I got old enough to party on my own, I’d make friends on the scene then as well, only to find out that my family still knew theirs in some way shape or form!

Were there any local mentors/inspirations that really caught your eye?

My mother was my main inspiration! She is so well rounded when it comes to music. She would take me to reggae/calypso shows, carnival costume competitions, and more, throughout Boston and other states. She always played music and music videos in the house and taught us about various artists within the Caribbean world as well as in American culture. She made sure we knew old, young, and in between. In addition to my mother, a magnificent DJ by the name of Ghetto Hype, who has been a staple to the culture in Boston for decades, has acted as a great mentor as well. Aside from them, dancehall queens have always inspired me through dance and fashion.

What keeps you going in this subculture? Who is pushing the scene to new heights right now?

Local nightclubs/bars Unity and Kay’s Oasis are staples in the Caribbean subculture of Boston for sure! There are also a few underground basements that go until the break of dawn that I can tell you about as well.

Xiara Cartagena
Xiara Cartagena
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey
Adidas-Boston-03
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey
Adidas-Boston-04
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey

Are there local hangout spots/parts of town that are iconic to the subculture?

Local nightclubs/bars Unity and Kay’s Oasis are staples in the Caribbean subculture of Boston for sure.

How does Boston's Caribbean music scene contribute to the city's culture? On the flip side, how does the city inspire what you do creatively?

Boston’s Caribbean scene contributes in major ways, especially in the summer. From street dances/cookouts to live shows with star-studded casts in big venues, the city is engulfed in island vibes. The Caribbean restaurants play a huge role too because people get exposed to different cuisines that they wouldn’t have otherwise tried unless they went on a vacation to the West Indies. This city inspires what I do creatively because people are often willing to embrace the new and different, so I don’t hold back!

Any tips for curious newcomers?

My tip would be to be yourself and remember: good vibes only.

How does the adidas Originals Forum connect with your community and how you express yourself?

The adidas Originals Forum is bold and daring. My community is fearless and so am I. I hold nothing back, which I feel like adidas endorses. Freedom we say!

Left to right: Jazz Lewis, Michael Gabriel, Nikisha Cummings
Left to right: Jazz Lewis, Michael Gabriel, Nikisha Cummings
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey
Michael Gabriel
Michael Gabriel
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey

In Conversation With Michael Gabriel

How were you introduced to Caribbean Dancehall/J'ouvert in Boston?

I relocated from Trinidad in 1987 to New York... I started going down to Cape Cod to play with a group called Ambakyla. The bass player for the group, Kent Yard (everyone calls him Doc), took me into Dorchester. He was very involved in the West Indian community doing everything from arranging for steel bands to composing music for and backing local Caribbean artist in the Boston area. As a steelpan player/tuner, I quickly dove into the scene playing with and tuning steel drums for local bands in Boston. I moved to Massachusetts in 1991 and started my own band called Jammdown. I was the lead singer and steelpan player. I performed at all the local Caribbean venues in the Boston area as well as playing/touring with various steel bands for the steel drum competitions called Panorama. It felt great for me to be in a place that was rich with my culture.

How did you find friends within the scene?

Making friends was not hard at all because I was amongst happy, fun-loving people with a passion for music and culture. I also reconnected with friends that I knew from growing up in Trinidad.

Were there any local mentors/inspirations that really caught your eye?

I would have to say a gentleman by the name of Marvin Gilmore. He was the owner of a club called the Western Front in Cambridge where many Caribbean bands played. He was very supportive in the community and also became a councilman.

What keeps you going in this subculture? Who is pushing the scene to new heights right now?

Well, as we know due to the pandemic, the past year and a half there has not been much of a scene but I always look forward to playing and supporting events in the area. And as one of the musicians for J’ouvert band Happiest Band Alive, I get to spread my deep-rooted Caribbean music vibe on the road like we do back home. Famous artist from the Islands are also very well received whenever they come to town. I would like to see more places where kids can go to learn Caribbean culture: steelpan, dance, history, etc.

Michael Gabriel
Michael Gabriel
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey
Nikisha Cummings
Nikisha Cummings
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey
Adidas-Boston-09
Highsnobiety / Michael B. Janey

Are there local hangout spots/parts of town that are iconic to the subculture?

Unity Club in Dorchester for a card game, dominoes, or some Soca Reggae jammin on a weekend. I would like to see Three C’s (Caribbean Cultural Center) revamped and back on the scene. And, I can’t go to Dorchester without stopping at Ali’s Roti Shop.

How does Boston's Caribbean music scene contribute to the city's culture? On the flip side, how does the city inspire what you do creatively?

Boston’s Caribbean music/culture is passed on from generation to generation and is also constantly being refueled by newcomers and people who go back and forth to the Islands. People from other cultures engage resulting in a more diverse city. Over the years, performing at venues in the Boston area has given me the opportunity to showcase my talent. I am inspired to produce and present the highest quality music, and to always set a positive example for the youth.

Any tips for curious newcomers?

There are numerous Caribbean food markets there where you can find everything you need to make your traditional dishes and be sure to link up with the Happiest Band Alive for Boston carnival and other events.

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