A story by Morgan Greenstreet and Saxon Baird for PRI. Click on the link for the podcast.
Every Labor Day, more than two million people pack into Central Brooklyn for the West Indian American Day Parade with flags flying, food grilling and music blasting from massive speakers on 18-wheel trucks. "Mas bands" — groups of costumed revelers — follow the trucks down the Parkway on foot, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dancers dressed in colorful bikinis, feathers, glitter and body paint.
"Just for a few hours, nothing matters,” says Aisha Carr, director of Sesame Flyers, a prominent mas band in Brooklyn, New York. “When you hear that music, and you’re in your costume, you don't care how it fits — you’re carefree.”
But long before the dazzling, carefree festivities begin, planners and participants spend many months preparing. It can be taxing, both monetarily and emotionally.
Steel pan groups, for example, are struggling more than ever to find rehearsal space to accommodate their mas bands of 50 to 100 players. For months, steel pan groups rehearse every night in preparation for their big Carnival moment: Panorama, the annual steel-band competition that takes place the Saturday before Labor Day.
“Back in the day it was easy to just grab a piece of open property, and set your band up and nobody bothered you," says Tameeka Garcia-Harris, manager of Steel-X-Plosion, a Brooklyn-based steel band. “Things are changing, gentrification is going on in Brooklyn, and it's becoming more and more difficult to find property and places to practice. And the pricing ... $7,000 a month for a piece of land. So it’s just been a difficult year.”
Steel pan groups also struggle with police increasingly enforcing noise ordinances that limit their rehearsal times in residential areas, plus laws that prevent groups from selling food or alcohol without a license. In the past, their sales helped cover expenses.
“It averages about $15,000 to bring out a Panorama [group],” says Garcia-Harris. “And the prize money, if you win, is only 20 grand, so you’re not really coming out in the positive, right?”
But the love of steel pan keeps Garcia-Harris and the entire New York steel pan community going, despite the challenges.
“Every year I say I’m not going to do it, and it becomes like this bittersweet relationship, but I end up doing it. They call it the ‘pan-jumbie’ or the ‘pan bug.' ... As the summer starts to come in, and the spring flowers start to rise, you go ... 'I think the band’s coming out again next year.’ You know, but ... You have to love it.”
At 5 a.m. on Labor Day, as the sun is just coming up, the streets of Central Brooklyn are full of hundreds of thousands of revelers who have been partying all night long. It is a wild, magical moment, unlike any other morning in New York City: groups of youth who are in costumes called "jab jab" roam the streets dressed as devils with chains and whips, while older people shimmy in frilly masquerade costumes of the colonial era.
The revelers, covered in paint, tar and powder, drink rum and dance to the music of raucous acoustic bands: Haitian "rara" groups and brass bands on foot, and hot rhythm bands and steel pan pulled by small trucks.
This is J’Ouvert, the unruly, predawn bacchanal that marks the unofficial opening of Carnival in Brooklyn, with a history that goes back to the origins of Caribbean Carnival itself. The word J’Ouvert comes from two French words, "Jour Ouvert," meaning daybreak in Creole, but this celebration actually begins around midnight of the Sunday before Labor Day and continues well into the morning. It has roots in a harvest festival called Canboulay (from the French Cannes Brulées) in 18th-century Trinidad, which commemorated the backbreaking harvests slaves went through when a cane field caught fire. After emancipation in 1838, former slaves and indentured servants merged Canboulay with the European masquerade traditions of the Pre-Lenten Carnival. Their alternative Carnival was a defiant celebration of freedom with crowds of Afro-Creole people drumming, singing "kaiso" — which evolved into calypso — and dancing in the streets.