May 11, 2014 at 1:25 am

Donna's Detroit

Pop-up parade brings Carnival to Detroit neighborhoods

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Ralph Taylor does not need an excuse for throwing a parade. Sometimes he just gathers his dancers, dresses them in his elaborate costumes, breaks out his rolling sound system and “poof!” a parade is ready to wend its way through his neighborhood – or maybe yours.

When he staged a pop-up parade through Detroit’s West and Indian Villages last weekend, the magic was so ephemeral if you blinked you might have missed it.

When Gwen Jachim spotted the band of colorful, glittering creatures dancing down Seminole to the beat of Caribbean music in her Indian Village neighborhood, she didn’t stop to think. She just grabbed her daughter and headed out to join the party.

The parade itself took much less time than did unloading the many pieces of Taylor’s intricate, spangled and befeathered creations and assembling them around the bodies of his young marchers, who had to fight a heavy wind that grabbed the gossamer wings and skirts and threatened to blow them away.

“That’s OK,” said the 71-year-old native of Trinidad in his lilting island accent. “Next time it will be bigger. After this I’m designing new costumes.”

Spectators got a longer look in March when Taylor showcased some of his designs in this year’s Marche du Nain Rouge parade through Midtown.

Hidden marvel

Taylor is not the easiest guy to find. Herman Jenkins, co-owner of The Gathering restaurant in Indian Village’s The Collective on Jefferson, co-sponsored the pop-up procession. He says he saw the sign “Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions” on an old red brick warehouse near West Village every time he drove his daughter to school.

“Then one time the door was open and I stuck my head in to see what was there and WOW!” he said. There were all of Taylor’s creations. “I had wanted to do something for the neighborhood,” Jenkins said. And just like that he was co-sponsoring a parade in The Villages.

Walking into the E. Lafayette warehouse is like stepping into Taylor’s “own personal Disney World,” chock full of pieces of costumes in every possible color and material, covered in feathers, beads and sequins. Some are completed and stand as sculptures that greet you at the door. Others are under construction.

Kids from the neighborhood and Church of the Messiah sometimes drop by to help. But his go-to paraders are dancers from Detroit’s House of Bastet studio, who paraded through The Villages last weekend.

The ideas behind Taylor’s costumes are straight from his native culture. In Trinidad every year brings Carnival season, officially the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but the festivities begin right after the Christmas holidays. And as with New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the highlights of the festivities are the parades.

As a boy Taylor followed the masqueraders and bands. “I would follow the characters down the streets. Sometimes I got lost from my parents, and they’d come looking for me,” Taylor said. “I was just the kind of guy that loved parades.”

A little history

Some of his huge but delicate “costumes” seem more like personal floats. They can be 20 feet high and 15 feet wide and are supported by metal frames on wheels. The creations combine design, sculpture, sewing and welding.

Taylor learned welding and auto body work from his uncles, and “and growing up in a festive country, which is Trinidad, I learned the skill of designing costumes,” he said. He won his first Carnival costume contest at the age of 9 and has been designing ever since.

When he moved to Detroit, Taylor worked as a welder in manufacturing fabrication and eventually taught welding and auto body in the Detroit Public Schools’ Breithaupt Career and Technical Center. He retired just last year and can now devote himself to his passion for design.

Taylor has produced parades in Trinidad, the Virgin Isands, the Bahamas, Charleston, S.C., Columbia, Ind., New York, Toronto and Chicago.

He made the Four Calling Birds for the Parade Company”s Twelve Days of Christmas and one year he played steel drums in the Thanksgiving Parade.

His pop-up parades started more than 15 years ago when a teacher at Belleville Elementary School asked him to lead a workshop teaching her second grade students to make costumes based on books they were reading. “They were reading about creepy-crawly things,” Taylor said.

“She decided to call it ‘Parade of Surprise,’ because no one else at the school knew a parade was going to happen… At the end of the tweve-week workshop we passed by the school and they were shocked,” Taylor laughed.

Three years ago Taylor resurrected the Parade of Surprise and his neighborhood pop-up pageant has become an annual event. When will it happen? Not even Taylor knows yet.

Foundation grant helps

Collaborating with the Mt. Elliott Maker Space and 5e Gallery, Taylor won a Knight Foundation grant to produce a parade the group is calling Hip Hop Mardi Gras, a fusion of urban and island cultures. It will debut at Maker Faire at the Henry Ford July 26 and 27, and parts of it will be included in a performance during the D-lectricity festival, Sept. 26 and 27.

The grant is important because these Caribbean creations cost quite a bit to produce. Taylor imports many of their decorative elements from his native Trinidad. “You can’t get this variety of beads and spangles anywhere else,” he said holding up card after card of samples in a rainbow of colors.

It’s one of Taylor’s biggest disappointments that the Caribbean community stopped having their annual parade on Woodward Avenue four years ago, something he worked on for months each year. In his dreams someone in the city sponsors his parades downtown, even if it’s just a few pop-ups through Campus Martius at the lunch hour.

It seems unfortunate that we have a cultural treasure in Ralph Taylor and he’s toiling away in an obscure east side warehouse with the mysterious sign on the side reading “Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions.”

Like the parade master says, “We need the Caribbean beat on the streets of Detroit.”

Caribbean Mardi gras Productions is at 6911 E. Lafayette, Detroit. Ralph Taylor is on Facebook and receives email at ralphcarnival1@aol.com

Maat Dismuke,14, of Detroit's House of Bastet dance studio, dances in a costume based on an African chief character designed and created by Ralph Taylor's Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions at the Marche du Nain Rouge this year. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Ralph Taylor poses among the costumes in his east side studio on E. ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
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