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J’Ouvert 2008 in New York
Steelbands, Pan Music & Rhythm Sections Rule the Streets

In Pictures

New York - It was already quite light in the sky as the 2008 New York J’Ouvert celebrations got underway in Brooklyn.  Lining up on Flatbush Avenue in the vicinity of Grand Army Plaza, then turning on to Empire Boulevard, the bulk of onlookers was along Empire.  Enthusiastic rhythm sections armed with iron men and more, colorful characters (especially those who dared come out costumed somewhat prettily and proper, despite the ever-present promise of oil, paint and powder as an ‘additional dressing’), traditional ‘mud mas’, the signature of J’Ouvert – the ole mas characters showcasing their social and political commentary on the times - and of course, the steelbands, all completed the fabulous audio-visual and marvelous mosaic that was J’Ouvert this past Monday morning – the unofficial start of Labor Day.

New York’s J’Ouvert is a perfect study of storytelling, performing arts (drama, dancing, music performance, tradition and theater) with a live and interactive audience.  It is Broadway on the road - real theater, for the masses, by the masses, and with the masses.

There were tents set up for adjudication along Empire Boulevard, the main route - where the ole mas bands performed their skits before judges, and steelbands played their ‘road or “bomb” tune’ – all in an effort for top honors.  There were many humorous happenings aside from the official bands, like the woman, looking ultra chic in her short top and tight-fitting jeans, with hair recently ‘permed’, and looking for all the world like she had just stepped out of a beauty shop - busy telling a man she was trying “to stay clean” because she had to go out later in the day.  This – in the middle of all types of happily muddy and painted characters all around her!!  She was joking, right?  That was a comedy scene in itself!

Even a couple of the younger NYPD (New York Police Department) members found themselves a bit ‘dusted with power’ and smudged with paint.  Many officers were on hand as escorts – mandatory for music and mas bands who paraded along the route for J’Ouvert.  But most of the officers were on duty in their regular law enforcement capacity.  Some stood by with benevolent or bemused expressions on their faces, some obviously West Indian or African American, looking much more comfortable than their peers.  And then there were the others that looked on in barely concealed disgust, while some appeared to wish that they had pulled another gig off the duty roster.  Nonetheless, if one is familiar with the J’Ouvert participants, you would understand that like it or not, people came out to enjoy themselves, and as the saying goes “doh play mas if yuh ‘fraid power!” That includes being in the midst of the event, by accident or design.

Back in 2005 though, during that year’s J’Ouvert celebration, there were a few NYPD officers at various points along the route who got ‘jammed’ on by determined women who were not taking ‘no’ for an answer - not that those particular officers seemed to mind... (pictured above).

As customary, popular topics and current burning issues were the focus of many ole mas characters – like current Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama; known personalities were zinged, like president Bush, Republican presidential nominee John McCain and USSA (United States Steelband Association) president Anthony ‘Ike’ Hinds, associate Tom Montvel-Cohen and Cecil Rhodes.

After the euphoria (and psychological downer, for some) of the New York panorama, the orchestras’ road band representations, usually between fifteen and thirty players out of their original panorama showing of up to one hundred musicians – also took to the road for J’Ouvert.  From ‘Philly’ came Philadelphia Pan Stars, while 2008 Panorama champs ADLIB steel orchestra from Long Island turned out, with leader and band captain Franklin Mayers and their eighteen-year old champion arranger André White (pictured in white and blue tops, respectively) still on hand doing a bit of directing.  There was no sign of Pantonic, Sonatas or Sesame Flyers Steel Orchestras in the J’Ouvert as has been the case in previous years, due, some say, to the current discord surrounding which organization is claiming rights to the overall J’Ouvert event.  But Pantonic’s players had no intention of being out of the mix, and many hung out with the already quite large showing of fellow Brooklyn band D’Radoes Steel Orchestra, which was on the road with many supporters, playing their very melodious 2008 panorama selection ‘Oil and Music.’

Utopia Pan Soul: the Next Generation which does not participate in panorama but makes its mark in other places such as J’Ouvert, took to the road with a tune penned exactly for such a time – one of the 2008 soca hits, Zan’s ‘Out on De Road.’  Pan music lovers, mas characters, and revelers in general made much merriment with the panside as they played with gusto while making their way along the boulevard.

Other bands along the route included Brimblerz International featuring many of the famous Moods Pan Groove veteran, but deadpan, serious-faced steelpan musicians, still of course managed by Clyde Durant.  CYP’s (Caribbean Youth Panoramics) arranger and leader Joseph ‘Franklyn’ Gerald was happily behind a double guitar (instead of in front of a band as arranger), ‘taking a knock’ with Dem Stars.  Harmony Steel Orchestra came out with a strong roadside, playing Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore’s ‘Hooked.’ Queens-based Steel Sensation headed by Ian Japsi ably provided music for mas band No Technology.  CrossFire, led by Douglas ‘Dougie’ Martin was also on the road with arranger Khuent Rose and other band musicians enjoying the J’Ouvert.  Ace arranger Pelham Goddard with Sesame Flyers for the third year in a row, was now happily and literally – bringing up Crossfire’s rear on ‘iron.’

Despers USA, which was the only band who could truly and literally claim to have been ‘on the road’ when they took to Eastern Parkway in 2007, were out in good numbers both in terms of musicians and supporters.  Band captain Wayne ‘Bumpy’ Inniss (pictured) happily paused for a picture for When Steel Talks, as he unwound and really enjoyed the J’Ouvert after the pressures of panorama.  CASYM Steel Orchestra, who took second place at the competition, appeared with a small but very effective group of musicians, including band captain Travis Roberts.  Hearts of Steel which debuted back in 2007 and fairly compact for J’Ouvert 2008, came armed with a large contingent of supporters - mature men and women enjoying themselves chipping down the road to the band’s music, and sporting what else but Hearts of Steel t-shirts.  It was not only the known steelbands on the route.  Several small sides, and other dedicated rhythm sections – complete with the beloved two-note dudup (bass kettle) - took part, and were attended by their own equally determined and loyal supporters who did not let a small thing such as ‘size’ hinder their J’Ouvert morning.

From an onlooker’s point of view, the 2008 J’Ouvert celebration was obviously enjoyed by all who were there.  There was a sense of community and controlled abandon that is essentially lost on the Eastern Parkway parade later in the day, now that the latter is so heavily regimented and restricted unless one is a bonafide member of a band.  Nonetheless J’Ouvert was smaller than in previous years, and at times with larger gaps between the bands.  For some reason bands appeared held up at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard.  They seemed ready – the steelbands and rhythm sections were kicking, while the mas characters and J’Ouvert participants danced around.  But why they were stationary in one place for any particular period of time is unclear.

The 2008 J’Ouvert celebration itself began considerably later than in previous years. It seems as though the days of the true J’Ouvert starting in ‘pitch blackness’ is a thing of the past – we will have to wait and see.  Also, the route has been shortened.  This year, the cut-off point was at Rutland Road and Nostrand Avenue, with NYPD’s ‘finest’ in their numbers standing by with their infamous orange sweeper net  (pictured above), strung across the road to enforce the fact.  There would be no tolerance of pleas by panmen and revelers to proceed further.  Just a couple years ago, bands rolled further south past Winthrop Street; and even further down memory lane, the ole timers would tell you - as far as Church Avenue, and for most, ultimately back to panyards with their diehard supporters in tow for the ‘las’ lap.’  The writing could be on the wall for New York’s J’Ouvert and its lovers.  With a much later start time, and ever-shortening route – what’s next?  For 2008, though, those who made it to the J’Ouvert celebration would probably tell you they had themselves a really good time.  And for, now, that is all that matters.

New York’s J’Ouvert may be the only real performance opportunity left for the steelpan musicians to interact with fans and culture lovers in the purest traditional sense - no trucks, no obnoxious blaring and deafening sound systems - and no ignorant audiences (those who regard pan music as ‘noise’ or ‘below them’ socially).  Participating are just pan lovers, musicians and overall supporters in a symbiotic loving and re-energized relationship at ground level.  Any steelpan player who has not experienced playing on the road surrounded by an adoring and soulful audience has been deprived of one of the greatest music performance  opportunities ever.   New York’s J’Ouvert is the only live performing arts theater - by the people, and for the people - left that allows the panman and pan woman to connect to the African traditions that stretch back over centuries.   Maybe it is time for the academically educated percussion professors to step down from their ivory towers, step out of their lab settings, to experience the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ this music operates on this uniquely high and spiritual level - right here in urban New York.

New York’s 2008 J’Ouvert in Pictures

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