J'Ouvert Celebration and West Indian-American Day Carnival

J'Ouvert Celebration and West Indian-American Day Carnival

Date Observed: First Monday in September
Location: Brooklyn, New York

The J'Ouvert Celebration and West Indian-American Day Carnival draw upon island traditions that involve art, craftsmanship, cuisine, dance, and music. The Carnival has been held in September since the 1940s, while J'Ouvert began in the 1980s. The celebration has become one of the most prominent multi-ethnic festivals in the city.

Historical Background

Carnival originated in medieval Roman Catholic Europe as feasting parties held before the beginning of Lent in late February or early March. During Lent, Roman Catholics were obligated to abstain from certain foods, so many participated in Carnival as a last indulgence before the 40 days of Lent. As countries such as Spain and France colonized the Americas beginning in the 16th century, their Carnival celebrations came with them. After the abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1834, free blacks began to have a strong influence on the celebrations of Carnival, adding street theater and their own musical and dance traditions (see also West Indies Emancipation Day).

The term J'Ouvert (joo-VAY) combines the French words jour and ouvert and means the "beginning of the day." The J'Ouvert procession has been the traditional opening of Carnival in the West Indies nation of Trinidad and Tobago for more than 100 years and kicks off at the break of dawn. J'Ouvert is said to have derived from a much earlier festival that was held at night by slaves gathered to celebrate their emancipation. It included masquerading, singing and dancing, and eventually got swept up into the Trinidadian Carnival festivities.

Creation of the Festival

Brooklyn is home to the largest West Indian population outside of the Caribbean. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the prevalent custom of celebrating Carnival traveled with those who emigrated to New York. In the 1920s and 1930s, Carnival was mostly observed in the form of indoor balls, due to the colder temperatures found in the North during the traditional time for the pre-Lenten festival. Jessie Wattle (or Waddle), a Trinidadian woman, and others from the West Indies are reported to have organized such events in Harlem ballrooms.

In the 1940s Wattle sought and obtained a street permit for a outdoor Carnival parade in Harlem, replete with bands and costumed masqueraders; this event was held in September because the weather was more pleasant.

Various racial tensions and unrest during the mid-1960s led to the revocation of the Harlem event permit, so others - led by Rufus Goring, a costume designer from Trinidad - organized a Carnival parade in Brooklyn, where it has remained ever since. A few years later, Goring passed the leadership baton off to Carlos Lezama, who formed the group that now coordinates the annual parade: the West Indian-American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA).

The J'Ouvert part of the celebration began during the 1980s, when members of the Pan Rebels Steel Orchestra ventured out in the wee hours and began performing for some allnight partiers. This led to a spontaneous parade - with some masqueraders reputed to be costumed only in their pajamas - heading down the street, picking up others until they numbered 100. In 1994 the nonprofit J'Ouvert City International, Inc., was formed to coordinate the pre-dawn event.


Approximately two million people participate in the Labor Day festivities in New York each year. About 10 percent of that number, a hardy 200,000 revelers, take part in J'Ouvert that commences at 2 A . M . on the first Monday of September. This is characterized by a gathering of steel bands, playing traditional pan music without any influence from or bowing to modern culture. The musical groups are joined by hordes of costumed masqueraders who dance along. Some are dressed elaborately, others in tatters and rags. They paint their faces and their bodies, some with mud, others with talcum. Some dress as devils, witches, and all manner of evil spirits; others choose to satirize politicians of the day through their dress and via the placards they carry. Innocent bystanders must beware of having mud, paint, or powder flung on them from the barrels of such substances wheeled along the route for "refreshing" the masqueraders throughout their revelry.

The West Indian-American Day Carnival begins with its parade at 11 A . M . and lasts until P . M . Similar to J'Ouvert, there are costumed and masqueraded participants at this event. The music, however, is more varied; much of it is blared from sound trucks and ranges from calypso to soca to reggae to the latest pop music offerings from any of the Caribbean isles. Those who come to line the two-mile parade route are urged to "Bring your flag! Represent your country with your national flag or rag," further underscoring the broadening of the event from its Trinidadian roots.

Food is a central part of the day and has gravitated from pure Trinidadian-based dishes to those that will provide attendees with the opportunity to experience a broad culinary spectrum: jerk chicken, chicken stew, fried chicken, beef stew, oxtail, rice and peas, salad, macaroni pie, fried flying fish, curry goat, roti, callaloo, souse, salt fish, fried bake, coconut bread and more. Non-food vendors are on hand, as well, displaying arts and crafts and other African-American and Caribbean-related wares.

Steel Band Music

The steel band, which is an integral part of Carnival, is said to have originated in Trinidad around the 1930s, although historians debate both the location and date. Today, the bands are popular throughout the Caribbean, as well as in the United States, during West Indian celebrations.

Steel bands are comprised of pan players who make music on instruments fashioned from the heads of used oil drums, pounded into a concave shape, and tuned by creating flattened areas that produce a variety of tones when struck. Pan players also have created percussion instruments from other kinds of metal containers such as biscuit tins, trash barrels, and paint cans.

The forerunners of steel bands were bamboo tamboo stick bands, which came about when British rulers in Trinidad banned drumming among blacks because whites viewed it as rebellious activity. To replace the drum, Africans created a different kind of music, using bamboo to beat on boxes and metal pieces. Eventually a rhythmic music called bamboo tamboo evolved, and an ensemble of players used thick bamboo from four to six feet long as instruments by pounding them on the ground and beating them with sticks. The open end of the sticks hitting the earth created a deep sound, with variations in tone depending on the size of the bamboo.

Bamboo tamboo bands marched in Carnivals and other festive events. About the mid-1930s these bands became a mixture of bamboo instruments and metal pans, although accounts about how that fusion began vary considerably. Basically, so the story goes, a bamboo band was parading in Trinidad and one of the members broke the bamboo he was using, and supposedly picked up a pan or can and began beating on it.

Whatever the makeup of a band, none paraded during World War II when Carnival was banned. Following the war, parades again took place, especially during celebrations of victories in Europe and Japan in 1945. By that time, steel bands were the rage and ever since have continued to evolve. Some have become professional companies that perform internationally.

Contacts and Web Sites

Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Center Brooklyn Borough Hall 209 Joralemon St. Brooklyn, NY 11201 718-802-3846

J'Ouvert City International, Inc. 13 Atlantic Common Blvd. Brooklyn, NY 11217

West Indian-American Day Carnival Association 323 Rogers Ave. Brooklyn, NY 11225 718-467-1797

Further Reading

Allen, Ray, and Lois Wilcken, eds. Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New York. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Arching, Gerard. Masking and Power: Carnival and Popular Culture in the Caribbean. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Kasinitz, Philip. Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007