This year, after many years of hiatus, I participated in some of the Labor Day carnival activities in Brooklyn. The inspiration came from attending carnival in Trinidad and having ‘tabanca’ for the wonderful uplifting energy that comes from being a participant. I went to a fete and got to meet singer Rupee from Barbados, I jumped up in a rhythm section for J’ouvert, and I ‘stormed’ Dingolay Mas on the Parkway. All in all it was a good experience.
Leaving the fete, on Veronica Avenue, we bounced up members of the Pagwah J’ouvert band who this year were called, Blue York. Completely covered in blue, they were on the way to meet the rest of their band already on the road. It turns out Blue York won the J’ouvert competition this year.
What amazed me was the number of young people present for J’ouvert. They not only attended in groups as observers, but they also were the majority as musicians playing pan and contributing to rhythm sections. It was lovely to have all the music for J’ouvert be acoustic.
On the parkway religious trucks were juxtaposed in contrast to a proliferation of female masqueraders taking the opportunity to ‘leh go’ and be seen. What was hard for me, knowing carnival as a performing art, an opportunity for political commentary, and public rebellion of oppressive aspects of society, was that the balance has shifted to a type of rebellion that mainly sexualizes girls and creates voyeuristic and predatory boys. The visible contrast against this shift is now through the religious groups in the community, in Trinidad the contrast with the bikini mas seemed to be the small bands formal and informal that took to the streets of Port-of-Spain.
In addition, there were so many members of the NYPD present, it led me and my friend to laugh and wonder if all the police were in Brooklyn, leaving it safe for criminal activity throughout the city. Seeing young people climbing on cars and defacing public property, their presence was somewhat welcomed, as an accepted necessity, with the history of violence that has shrouded the parade. Also, given the fact that the young observers, without their rebellious energy positively harnessed, did take advantage of the darkness and crowds that make J’ouvert. They needed some sort of authority to prevent the street parade from disintegrating into mob mentality. It is an unfortunate aspect of Carnival in New York and a tenuous relationship given the history of police violence against Caribbean and immigrant populations in New York City.
“It is worth noting that Black victims in the most celebrated cases of police brutality and mob violence over the last decade and a half have been black immigrants…: Michael Stewart, killed in Howard Beach, Yusef Hawkins, killed in Bensonhurst, were from Trinidad, Patrick Dorismond, killed by police and Abner Louima, police torture victim, were both Haitian; Amadou Diallo, mistakenly shot forty-one times by the police was from West Africa.” (Philip Kasinitz, New York Equalize You? Change and Continuity in Brooklyn’s Labor Day Carnival, Culture in Action-The Trinidad Experience, Edited by Milla Cozart Riggio; P.282n)
While carnival can not remain static, the origins of the form can play an important part in giving voice to issues of the day that affect the Caribbean community in the diaspora, people of African descent and immigrant populations in general. On the heels of the Trayvon Martin Case and with the release of the movie ‘Fruitvale Station’, wouldn’t it have been amazing to see a band of teens on the parkway and/or for J’ouvert sharing their depiction of ‘I’m Trayvon Martin’?
I want to explore in the coming year how to harness the energy of the one million people on the parkway, especially the young people. The ritual of carnival is still an important conduit for the release of stresses that come from making a life in New York City? Carnival in Trinidad and for Labor Day definitely allowed me to reconnect with the joy and celebration that is my culture. I needed that, especially after a year of working to sustain three sources of income to make ends meet. I know for sure the community that comes together every year to participate also needs that. I look forward to this exploration in the coming year. Stay tuned!
Oh yes! The Food!
Thank you Parkway vendors for the marvelous food!
Shark and Bake from a Tobago lady!
Brooklyn Jumbies (stilt walkers): www.brooklynjumbies.com