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What is #J’Ouvert?

September 5, 2016 , , , , ,

On Labor Day in Brooklyn every year there is a street carnival to mimic the Carnival in Trinidad which held the week before Lent.  It is a chance for the West Indians living in New York to celebrate together with traditional costumes and musical competitions.  In Port of Spain the best steel drum bands bring it to Panorama in the Grand Savannah.  In Brooklyn the steel bands are small, but many of the really popular pan virtuosos move to New York to further their careers in music.  The performers who are paid to entertain at the Brooklyn Museum are the same ones who appear on the big stage in Trinidad.

I attended the Brooklyn Carnival in September of 1989 when Dinkins was running for mayor against Ed Koch.  At that time New York City was a big, fat, violent mess.  The racial tension was palpable.  The murder  of a teenager in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn turned New York into a symbol of racial hatred and violence.  The Koch/Dinkins race was perceived to be mostly about race.  All my friends who lived in Manhattan told me I would get killed if I went to the Carnival just for being white.  I already had my tickets to see the Mighty Sparrow  and Tambu in a small venue, and I was not at all to be dissuaded.

Two things happened to me that week that were spectacular. There was a show running on Broadway called Black and Blue playing at the sumptuously classy Minscoff Theater.  It was sold out, but I decided to go down to the box office right before a matinee and try my luck for a standing room only spot.  The box office had nothing to sell me.  A lady from group of extremely well dressed black people approached me and asked if I wanted a free ticket because their friend had cancelled.  I offered to pay but she refused. I then proceeded to watch the show in a very good seat, way down front, right smack in the center of my new best friends.  I was underdressed to be with them, but they did not seem to mind. I thanked them profusely, but we all had this feeling we were doing something kind of symbolic (because we were).  I accepted the rare generosity and they bestowed it on me as some kind of show of racial solidarity.  It was very cool.

I then felt completely confident to ignore my wimpy Manhattan friends who thought it was dangerous to go to a show at the Brooklyn Museum.  I saw great musicians, had a wonderful time with my fellow concert goers, and then the most magical thing happened.  The Mighty Sparrow, the undisputed king of Trinidad Carnival off all time, stepped down from the stage into the crowd in his Congo Man costume.  He had just performed the song, and since the crowd was so tiny compared to Port of Spain, where he would have been mauled by fans, he personally mingled with the audience.  I was hugged by the Mighty Sparrow in his Congo Man costume.  Very few people can say that.  I treasure the experience forever.

This year shootings erupted at the J’Ouvert parade and celebration.  This warm up event is a costumed street parade leading up to the more formal Fat Tuesday costume balls and floats.  It happens before dawn on Carnival Monday in Port of Spain.  The costumes are anything but fancy, because celebrates the dark, sinful side of life before Lent takes over the calendar. It is time to blow it all out before 6 weeks of some kind of penance.  The mas players who want to do it all start on Monday, then sleep very little between that opening party and Tuesday at midnight when it ends abruptly.  The political significance is huge because it was the time slaves and European masters exchanged places in a symbolic way. This is where the very sarcastic and political practice of calypso was started. Brooklyn is now one of the places on earth that still has this culture.

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