Essays on Urban Folklore
Brooklyn J’ouvert – Heritage Under Fire
Ray Allen, Brooklyn College
When I arrived at Grand Army Plaza last Monday at 4 a.m. Brooklyn’s J’ouvert Festival was in full swing. I was treated to a steady stream of steelbands, African-style percussion groups, and wild costumes ranging from masquerade bands of devils, bats, and ghosts to clusters of individuals covered in paint, mud, and oil. A deep throbbing pulse cut the night air as one band’s infectious rhythms blended into the next. There were plenty of police lining Flatbush Avenue, trying their best to direct the trucks and floats that carried the musicians through the crowds of revelers. Banks of portable lights illuminated the eerie scene but the vibe was positive. I trailed several steelbands down Flatbush Avenue, jumping in and out of the throng, soaking in the immediacy of the music and motion. As the skies began to brighten I made my way home, buoyant from the spirit of J’ouvert.
An hour later, when I turned on the radio, I was dismayed to learn that four people had been shot, two fatally, near the junction of Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard, not more than a quarter-mile from where I had been taking in the festivities. Once again J’ouvert, Brooklyn’s unabashed celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture, enjoyed by several hundred thousand, had been marred by the actions of a handful of so-called “hooligans.” My frustration only deepened as media reports poured in—from the Times to the Post to Public Radio to New York 1 Cable TV—all accounts centered on the violence and many included calls to shut down J’ouvert. The event was portrayed as a late-night drunken party, with no explanation of its history or cultural significance. Most disturbing was an interview that WNYC radio did with the host of New York 1’s Inside City Hall, Errol Louis (full disclosure—I’m a supporting member of WNYC). Louis, himself of Trinidadian heritage, characterized the gathering as “hundreds of thousands of people out roaming the streets at four o’clock in the morning,” and argued that the event was supported by politicians “out of a completely misguided sense that this (J’ouvert) is some strong cultural tradition that the public in their districts really wants to have in place. That’s simply not true.” Brooklyn J’ouvert, he surmised, was some “sort of a cultural invention, and what’s been invented can be altered or un-invented or frankly rooted out if necessary.”
Sadly this sort of misinformation has been pervasive throughout the media coverage of J’ouvert. So let me offer a brief historical corrective. Back in Trinidad, J’ouvert (break of day) processions have marked the opening of Carnival for more than a century. J’ourvert is thought to have evolved from 19th century Canboulay festivals–nighttime celebrations where ex-slaves gathered to masquerade, sing, and dance in commemoration of their emancipation. When the tradition was incorporated into Trinidad’s pre-lent Carnival sometime around the turn of the 20th century, J’ouvert became an arena for African-derived percussion, witty satire singing, traditional ole mas costuming, and, by the 1940s, lively steelband music.
J’ouvert was not part of the celebrations when Trinidadian-style Carnival was first transplanted to Harlem in the 1940s and then to Brooklyn in the late 1960s. Huge daytime parades, held on Labor Day (rather than in February), in deference to the weather, defined the festivities. The Eastern Parkway parade, center of the event since 1970, became dominated by fancy costumes and high-volume sound-system trucks. The latter eventually drove out the steelbands and percussion groups that had provided the rhythmic soundtrack for thousands of costumed masqueraders who wined (danced) down the Parkway. In response, a group of Trinidadian steelband players began to look for ways to bring steelband back into Brooklyn’s street Carnival. Sometime in the early 1990s they organized informal street processions in the wee hours of Carnival Monday. The event caught on, and by 1995 a group calling itself J’ouvert City International had negotiated an agreement with local police to hold a J’ouvert parade up Flatbush Avenue and out Empire Boulevard beginning around 4 a.m. and lasting through daybreak of Labor Day Monday. The event featured steelbands and ole mas costumes (no sound-system trucks of DJs allowed), and as in Trinidad, signaled the opening of Carnival.
Brooklyn’s J’ouvert morphed quickly from an informal gathering of a handful of steelbands to a large procession with dozens of steel and rhythm bands and traditional ole-mas characters that had virtually disappeared from the Eastern Parkway parade. The cultural significance of the event cannot be understated—historically J’ouvert reflects what Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace characterized as the “Emancipation spirit” of an oppressed people. More recently it has become a haven for traditional Trinidadian cultural expressions—the steelbands, African drumming, and traditional masquerading that are at the heart of the Carnival experience.
So what to do to make J’ouvert safer? There are no easy answers, but I’m heartened to hear Mayor de Blasio’s pledge not to simply shut the event down in response to the noisy clamor of critics. It will clearly take deep refection by the event’s organizers, local police, and community members to hammer out a solution. But as negotiations unfold the voices of history and heritage must be part of the conversation. J’ouvert is far more than a crowd of party-goers roaming the late-night streets—it is a deep expression of Afro-Caribbean culture and identity that has become indelibly woven into the fabric of Brooklyn’s cultural mosaic. It is not something that can be simply “un-invented” or “rooted out.”
For additional background see “J’ouvert! Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions in Brooklyn Carnival” by Ray Allen at: http://citylore.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/jouvert.pdf.