The following is a guest post by Ray Allen, co-leader of the 2023 Community Collections Grant project, Documenting, Archiving, Presenting and Fostering Trinidadian J’ouvert Traditions. This post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story. 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.
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.
For nearly two centuries, J’ouvert “break of day” processions have marked the opening of Carnival in Trinidad. Held in the predawn hours of Carnival Monday, J’ouvert evolved from nineteenth century Canboulay festivals—the 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, J’ouvert became an arena for African-derived percussion, witty satire singing, sardonic costuming, and, more recently, lively steel band music.
In Brooklyn, home to the largest West Indian population outside of the Caribbean, J’ouvert became an integral component of Labor Day Carnival in the 1990s. For some thirty years, J’ouvert’s ghastly devils, mud and paint-covered revelers, and mysterious ancestral characters have processed down Flatbush Avenue and across Empire Boulevard, announcing the opening of Brooklyn Carnival with the first morning light. Brooklyn J’ouvert has become a home for ole mas characters and on-the-road acoustic steelpan, traditions that have all but disappeared from the big daytime Eastern Parkway Carnival parade.
The J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience exhibit at Lefferts Historic House is the brainchild of Trinidad native Sandra A. M. Bell, an arts coordinator and masquerader who has been active in Brooklyn Carnival since the 1970s. Bell, who most recently played mas as Jab Jab character and a Vodou Priestess, summed up the cultural significance of J’ouvert for Caribbean people at home and in the diaspora: “J’ouvert is spiritual, it’s like something about that ancestral memory that we connect to. And with that early morning, and that sun rising, it’s like a whole communal kind of atmosphere, all together, down the road going to this rhythm. J’ouvert is a groove, it’s like a flow, it’s a feeling of togetherness.”
Bell’s organization, JouvayFest Collective, partnered with City Lore and the Prospect Park Alliance to produce the exhibit that will be up through October 2023. Earlier this year, with support from the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grant program, Bell and I set about documenting Brooklyn J’ouvert costume makers, masqueraders, and musicians. Images and quotes from their interviews were integrated into the exhibit, and artists were invited to participate in public programs featuring music, dance, and discussions held on the grounds of Lefferts Historic House.
Music and masquerading were the primary topics of conversation during project interviews and exhibition programs. Percussionist Anthony Reece of the Kutter’s Rhythm Band reflected on the role of rhythm and notes: “Our ancestors were drummers—we come out of that African goat skin drumming. So, when we start to know we get into a certain zone … And you listen to the rhythm, we call it that ‘jumbie.’ It’s like a spiritual groove—you understand? It makes everything synch together. So yes, it goes back to the roots of it all.”
Michael Manswell of the Caribbean performing ensemble, Something Positive, poignantly described the magic of playing ole mas at day break: “J’ouvert is primordial, a feeling of coming awake, of Genesis, always mysterious. It’s in a liminal space, between dark and light. It feels almost like it’s stolen time.”
Reflecting the aims of the wider Documenting, Archiving, Presenting and Fostering Trinidadian J’ouvert Traditions project, which is now over halfway through, the J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience is a colorful celebration of Caribbean emancipation and West Indian Carnival culture in Brooklyn. Yet the exhibit also reminds visitors of the tradition’s uncertain future in the ever-changing urban landscape. Pessimists have surmised that creeping gentrification, the high costs of mounting steel and mas bands, and fear-mongering on the part of the press might lead to the inevitable shutdown of Brooklyn J’ouvert, and perhaps Labor Day Carnival itself. However, Bell and her collaborators are pushing back against that narrative, and history may be on their side.
By nature, Carnival has been a flash point for controversy, and one that has survived numerous attempts by colonial and contemporary civic authorities to halt or curtail its transgressive play. For the moment, the J’ouvert spirit continues to thrive in Brooklyn, igniting a joyful celebration of human creativity, liberation, and a cry for social justice. Bell’s JouvayFest Collective and her folklorist partners aim to keep it that way.
You can read more about the J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience exhibition here.