J’Ouvert is Not the problem, or a problem. It is the solution...

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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

New York, USA - 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert was tremendous, loving, fun-sharing - and it was an exhilarating joyous event pricked by heartbreaking tragedy. Two young lives were lost in circumstances that will be forever linked to J’Ouvert.  The J’Ouvert celebrations did not take these people’s lives - nor did it create the circumstances that took these two young people from us. In fact, it is safe to say, that if the spirit of J’Ouvert had touched the individuals who violated the sanctity of the celebration, we would be entertaining a totally different conversation. We, like most who attended J’Ouvert, were never aware that something dreadful had taken place until after leaving the event.

What transpired was a clear manifestation of the social and societal ills that surround our community and people 24-7. And moreover, until these issues are seriously addressed, Bad things can be visited on Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime.

Please check out the movie “State of Grace” if you get an opportunity featuring Sean Penn, for some perspective... We will never be so crass as to use a phrase - as inhumane a term, like the one the military coins “collateral damage,” when talking about other people’s children and other people’s lives taken during ‘erroneous’ drone strikes or military maneuvers. Do people call for the total shut down of the military?  But it does allow one to step back and take a look at the total picture. Having said this, one can’t imagine what the parents and families of these two young people are going through right now.

There have been expected calls for the shutting down of J’Ouvert. While this guttural reaction (and in some cases political posturing) is understandable, it is not a solution. Would we shut down St. Patrick’s day parade, Coney Island, Broadway, the Empire State building, NFL football games or the likes, where people have participated in ill-behavior, criminal activity, and lives have been lost in surprisingly high numbers that would shock the average person, had such incidences been afforded the same type of media hype? Tailgating and picnicking are American pastimes that are ingrained deep in American culture. However, some of the most horrendous crimes have taken place at these gatherings. Should they be banned?

Many have often thought of World War I and World War II as nothing more than real European tribal warfare that engulfed the whole globe and dragged the rest of the world into their madness - the result being millions of people killed. An irremovable dot of shame on the timeline of humanity.

And on the flip side we have been always buoyed by the wonderment of something as simple and magnanimous as Brooklyn J’Ouvert. It is like nothing anywhere else in the world because of active participation of folks from all different nationalities and races. An irreverent, international people celebration for the masses by the masses. Not even Louisiana’s Mardi Gras comes close.

D’Radoes Steel Orchestra on the road for Brooklyn J’Ouvert 2016
D’Radoes Steel Orchestra on the road for Brooklyn J’Ouvert 2016

New York has often been called a melting pot of people and culture. But if we are honest one quickly realizes that this really is not true in 2016. It is in reality a hostile environment, where folks for the most part stay on their perceived side of the fence or line. Except for J’Ouvert and New York Pan.

Dropping ‘baby powder’ bombs on each other, sliming one another with paint, mud and oil - while in a joyous embrace, chipping down the road to the music steelbands, and rhythms of drums and iron - are thousands of people intermingled with flags of so many nations - proudly displayed as head ties or on their person. What politicians have not been able to accomplish, J’Ouvert has.

Legend Stars Steelband on the road for Brooklyn J’Ouvert 2016
Legend Stars Steelband on the road for Brooklyn J’Ouvert 2016

There is one politician that needs to be mentioned as a necessary sidebar. An ignorant, backward opportunist, and a dangerous asshole - Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley (D-Brooklyn) who is but one who has called for the ‘suspension’ of J’Ouvert. Won’t even mention one other - whose constituency J’Ouvert does not transpire within, or even near.

The reality is that the developers are building luxury condos along the J’Ouvert route.  And in this regard they—and the incoming “residents”—want J’Ouvert gone. Now juxtaposition this:  We were reminded by someone who has worked in the projects for decades—and these projects are just a couple miles away from the J’Ouvert route—that he sees young people who he has watched grow-up from toddlers - killed everyday, and carried out in body bags daily. The developers, the mayor and the current borough president (the latter whose main concern is nothing impeding his future bid for mayor of New York) are not interested in tearing down the projects and building real “homes” for those residents. And therefore we hear nothing about their lives or their deaths. Their lives don’t matter - there is no profit in it.

No one attends events or activities like J’Ouvert, NFL games, or even small-scale gatherings such as house parties - with the expectation of being harmed, injured or killed. And there lies the hypocrisy from the politicians, and general media who have an agenda, and those of the public who are swayed by the narrative. But a closer look at the historical episodes and like issues reveals that J’Ouvert - through its tradition of inclusiveness and community - is uniquely poised to address the same problems it is accused of being responsible for. Again, J’Ouvert is not the problem, or a problem, when unfortunate incidents and criminal acts can occur any where (sometimes blocks away from the official route, yet attributed to J’Ouvert), anytime (sometimes hours before the event is given the ‘green light’ from NYPD to proceed), or any place - in New York City.

A look at the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert Celebrations

Brooklyn was again colorful, entertaining, enlightening and uplifting. Pan, paint, oil and plenty powder were the order of the morning.

Revelers chipping to the music of Pan Liberty during the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert
Revelers chipping to the music of Pan Liberty during the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert

There were less steelbands, Jab Jab and revelers than in past years but it was just as vibrant. The reality of the massive gentrification movement in Brooklyn is taking its toll on the community and its culture. Still the authorities claimed there were over 250,000 people participating in the J’Ouvert celebrations this year. That’s a lot of people peacefully having a good time and holding on to the culture of the community.

The new ‘aliens’ - not all, but the majority of them - are not interested in joining, enjoying or participating in what already exists in our community, or even having us around. They are interested in ignoring, stopping and replacing the cultural activities and artistic modes of expression of the current residents. And they have done a very good job of it. It has become increasingly more difficult for groups to find practice or work spaces for steel orchestras and mas camps. Several steelbands and mas presenters have disappeared over the last couple of years.

What was once an uneasy tolerance of the cultural norms of the community residents, has become an active, aggressive and hostile movement by the new ‘aliens’ to create obstacles and frustrations. Ultimately, our communities, culture and people will be no more as the numbers of the new gentrifiers increase. But until then...

Jab Jab preparing to make merry (or mischief) during the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert
Jab Jab preparing to make merry (or mischief) during the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert

The first real J’Ouvert character we encountered just after 5:30 a.m. on Empire Boulevard was a 6-foot-five Jab Jab, wagging his finger at us as he and his devilish cohorts were busy cooking up a special brew of oily slime to engage and initiate their willing and unwilling victims in friendly ‘goo’ embrace. A couple of blocks later we met what seemed like the whole Jab Jab nation rhythmically and humorously moving through anything in their path as they customarily do, in step to their driving Jab Jab pulse. Even these mischievous fun-loving devils were noticeably down in numbers this year. Nevertheless there were still hundreds of them out there doing their thing. And we learnt the Jab Jab was not strictly from the story book of Grenada, Carriacou and T&T (Trinidad and Tobago). We saw for the first time quite a few St. Lucian La Diablesse.

As we turned up Flatbush we saw band after band lined-up, awaiting the go-ahead to proceed down the avenue. Most of the bands were accompanied by mas groups portraying some sort of concept or historical idea or political statement. The first group we met was Philadelphia Pan Stars backing “Soca in d Place.”

Jab Jab preparing to make merry during the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert
Jab Lives Matter portrayal during the 2016 Brooklyn J’Ouvert

Along the way there were many independent skits like the small Jab Jab crew which was sporting their hand-made vehicle that featured a sign letting everyone know that “Jab Lives Matter.”

Veteran J’Ouvert participant Utopia Pan Soul was there with their special brand of political satire ‘Tea Party in Trump Plaza.’

An American was walking around, lamenting that his clothes were too clean! That didn’t last for long, and the joyous yell he let loose was a thing to hear, as he was included in the merriment as someone eagerly threw powder all over him and he became part of the J’Ouvert nation. His ecstasy was truly liberating.

And there was the mas organization PAGWAH portraying “BLACK.” Their mas was poignant, relevant, enlightening and empowering. Given the current state of affairs in the USA - their presentation was on point.

J’Ouvert Mas band Pagwah portraying ‘BLACK’ for 2016
J’Ouvert Mas band Pagwah portraying ‘BLACK’ for 2016

There is also another element that the J’Ouvert officials need to see to and eliminate immediately, meaning it must not be allowed to be part of, and overtake, the celebration. There has been an insidious growth of several ‘young crews’ in J’Ouvert who are moving with their own DJ-style music - i.e. small amplified electronic music systems, in hand-drawn carts and trolleys. WST counted at least six such on the J’Ouvert route this year.

The very nature and official rules of J’Ouvert mandate only steelbands or rhythm sections, which serves to head off DJs—of any size—taking over the event with raucous systems. These individuals know this and have no interest—period—in the true rhythmic, percussive and acoustic nature and culture of J’Ouvert; they are leaving their houses with the express purpose of flouting such rules, engaging in behavior identical to those who ‘storm’ events where they are not welcome. Left unchecked, these contingents will grow larger and disrupt the official J’Ouvert celebration and participants.

click to watch - New York J’Ouvert 2016 Video

click for - 2016 J’Ouvert RESULTS

click to see - J’Ouvert 2016 In Pictures

Utopia Pan Soul with their 2016 satirical presentation in partnership with D’Original Oildowners
Utopia Pan Soul with their 2016 satirical presentation in partnership with D’Original Oildowners

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