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A photo of project co-leader Sandra Bell as Marie LaVeux, Vodou Priestess dressed in black and red as part of the J'ouvert celebration procession in Brooklyn New York
Community Collections Grant project co-leader Sandra Bell playing Marie Laveau, Vodou Priestess, on Flatbush Avenue, as part of the 2023 J'ouvert celebrations. Photo by Ray Allen.

Catching up with Community Collections Grant Recipients: Long Live Brooklyn J’ouvert!

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The following is an excerpt from a post on the Library’s Of the People blog written by Ray Allen, co-leader (with Sandra A. M. Bell) of the 2023 Community Collections Grant project, Documenting, Archiving, Presenting and Fostering Trinidadian J’ouvert Traditions. His post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program, as part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative. Allen is a Professor of Music and American Studies Emeritus at Brooklyn College, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Community Collections Grant recipient organization, City Lore. His most recent book is Jump Up! Caribbean Carnival Music in New York City (Oxford University Press). You can read more about the 2023 Community Collections Grants awardees here.

Photo of members of Kutters Rhythm Band as part of the celebrations outside Lefferts Historical House
Kutter’s Rhythm Band at Lefferts Historic House. Photo by Ray Allen.

If you happened to be on your way to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo on the first Tuesday of August this year, you were in for quite a surprise! On that sunny summer afternoon, as you strolled down Flatbush Avenue, you would have been greeted by a procession of Caribbean Carnival masqueraders led by a 12-foot high, stilt walking Moko Jumbie. The cast of “ole mas” characters included the satirically curvaceous Dame Lorraine, the mischievous Midnight Robber, a cigar smoking Vodou priestess, a menacing devil wrapped in chains, and Baby Doll, the scolding adolescent mother in search of the father who had abandoned her and their child. The revelers swayed down Flatbush to the beat of a lively rhythm section playing on drums, metal car parts, bottles and spoons, and even a biscuit tin.

Just before they reached Empire Boulevard, the crowd swerved right into the yard of the old Lefferts Historic House, located on the southeastern edge of Prospect Park. There they were greeted by the infectious rhythms of the Kutter’s Rhythm Band and the sweet strains of the Hearts of Steel Orchestra.

By now a few spectators were probably wondering if Brooklyn’s famed Labor Day Carnival had arrived a month early. Well, not quite. The procession was a celebration in honor of Trinidad’s August 1 Emancipation Day, along with the opening of a new exhibit, J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience. Inside the 18th century Lefferts Historic House, which was recently repurposed as an interpretive center focusing on the Indigenous and enslaved African peoples of central Brooklyn, visitors found a dozen magnificent J’ouvert Carnival costumes from Trinidad and Brooklyn (move over Met and Brooklyn Museum, you are not the only art fashion show in town these days!). Thoughtfully assembled displays of photographs and artifacts, along with several engaging video shorts, told the story of J’ouvert’s origins in 19th century Trinidad and its more recent diaspora to Brooklyn…

…Head on over to the Library’s Of the People blog to read more about Brooklyn’s J’ouvert Carnival and the City Lore Community Collections Grant project, Documenting, Archiving, Presenting and Fostering Trinidadian J’ouvert Traditions!


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