Brooklyn, New York, USA - Most people claim Brooklyn J’Ouvert officially started in the late 1980s in Flatbush. But here’s Kitchener in 1974 singing “Who Give Them the Okay”, a tune about a J’Ouvert in Bedford Stuyvesant. Assembling on Fulton Street and Franklin Avenue, the group then proceeded east up Fulton towards Utica Avenue and eventually to Eastern Parkway. Bed Stuy was a hub for West Indians in the 60s and 70s, therefore it’s not surprising Trinidadians, after feting, would form a band, and, without permission, head to the Parkway.
Trinidadians in New York City have a tradition of not asking the authorities for permits to share their customs. This bold disregard for rules has made the city’s culture richer, but also caused run-ins with the law and unreceptive neighbors. Permits were sought (if ever) after their events increased in scale or became more visible. “We doh need permission to beat pan, party or play mas” is a Trini cry. A mantra they carried wherever they lived in the city. From Harlem to Bed Stuy to Crown Heights, it didn’t matter.
J’Ouvert 2018 - “Carenage Meets Wakanda”
In the 70s and 80s many West Indians began moving to Flatbush. Fulton Street remained a center for Caribbean culture throughout the 80s, anchored by Charlie’s recording studio near Nostrand Avenue. During the summer, you could see all the major calypsonians going in and out of the studio and the record shop. Metro Steel began rehearsing in a vacant store front down the block from Charlie’s. Pioneering panman Mikey Enoch established his pan-making operation in a basement next to the iconic Slave Theater. B’s recording studio was launching some of Lord Nelson’s biggest hits. And B’s restaurant added Trinidadian cuisine to the mix. The block was alive.
Throughout most of the 80s Metro Steelband would perform on the sidewalk in front of the panyard on Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue Labor Day Sunday night into Monday. The event had a J’Ouvert vibe, but we remained stationary, so it wasn’t J’Ouvert in the traditional sense. People from all walks of life gathered around the band. Watching the odd characters who drifted in every year, and got lost in the music was fascinating. They knew little about pan, and certainly never heard of J’Ouvert, but their bounce and sway suggested a deep connection to the moment. Everyone was feeling the beat, moving to their own rhythm, enjoying the spirit of the drums in the predawn darkness.
Liming on the sidewalk, listening to pan with friends and strangers, some dancing, others ole talking, was a quasi-J’Ouvert, and a way to mobilize the band for the Labor Day Parade. Panmen like Kenneth “Colors” Serrano, Anthony “Big Tony” Joseph, Brian Joseph, Edgar Gamory, Junior “Man” Samuel, Earl “Dust” Noel, Clement Franklin, Wayne “Pappitts” Baptiste and his sister Carol, never went home, breaking the night dew to insure all the pans made it to Eastern Parkway safely.
Even after the strum of the guitars and the roll of the tenors went silent, it still felt like a mini carnival on the edgy Thoroughfare. Supporters asking for tee-shirts, basses being mounted on stands, passing cars blasting soca, and the rumble of the A-Train became the new soundtrack. Then, suddenly, an argument would breakout; cuss words flying left and right. That’s when I knew it was really Labor Day. Inevitably, the dispute ended with a truce negotiated by a core band member or an elder.
J’Ouvert 2004 - “CrossFire Steel Orchestra”
Once we got to de Parkway, music was the mission, until another skirmish flared up. The scuffles never amounted to more than empty threats and bluffs between longtime friends who were either exhausted, inebriated or showing-off. For an outsider, the disturbance could be scary. But for Metro people, it was just the annual foolishness. No one ever got hurt, and the band played on. You had to stay behind your pan to avoid de bacchanal.
Beginning with Charlie’s Calypso Showcase Labor Day Saturday afternoon and ending when Metro left for Eastern Parkway Monday morning, Fulton Street was a nonstop party. However, in those years, I can’t recall ever seeing J’Ouvert revelers on the move in Bed Stuy. A decade later the scene changed.
After winning Panorama in 1990 with Clive Bradley’s arrangement of “Tell Me Why”, instead of going back to the panyard, which was now on Atlantic Avenue, Metro headed south down Washington Avenue and parked up on the corner of Woodruff and Flatbush Avenue. Around five o’clock Monday morning all the players made their way to the band.
Starting with the bomb tune, “The Greatest Love”, Metro, in full force, following no set route and stopping traffic along the way, rolled through the streets of Flatbush, picking up new people every block we passed. When the band stopped on Maple Street, between Bedford and Rogers, a landmarked area with stately limestone row houses and upper-class residents, we had a few hundred people jumpin’ up in the band.
Cyrus Busby - on the road for J’Ouvert 2004
After a short rest, Cyrus Busby started waving the flag and the rhythm section kicked in. It was time to play “Tell Me Why”, a song that glides between the somber minor mode and the hopeful major mode. Bradley’s arrangement opens with the more solemn of the two modes, which for a moment felt like a morning prayer on the tree-lined block. But when we leggo de chorus, the crowd went wild. The echo of steel and voices bouncing off molded doors, arched windows and gabled roof tops created a magnificent tunnel of sound. An incredible display of culture, played out with an unknowing backdrop. For me, that was J’Ouvert!
Unfortunately, the folks who stared through their wooden louvers didn’t share my sentiment. They viewed us as trespassers, or worse yet, radical troublemakers. While our intent was never to make a political statement — we just wanted to share our ancient ritual and uplift Flatbush with music — the message was interpreted by some as a signal, heard loud and clear, of unwelcomed change.
After leaving Maple Street, Metro snaked through Flatbush en route to Eastern Parkway, with players and revelers dropping off along the way. Around 11 A.M. we made our final stop next to a playground on East New York Avenue. The band had about 20 players, 15 diehard supporters, and two dozen stragglers who refused to go home.
Exhausted, the captain Big Tony and the other pan soldiers were trying to devise a strategy to get the band up to the Parkway. Pushing pan uphill through Crown Heights wasn’t going to be fun. That’s when Paulie from Renegades said, “Allyuh give we something nah.” Only about six players answered the call. The group began playing the montuno — a passage with an irresistible bassline — from “The Greatest Love”, the song that launched the march through the streets of Brooklyn.
Feeling the ancestral spirit, I jumped behind a double second. Relying on instinct and riffs I heard growing up, I began improvising a long, rambling solo. My lines were raw and jagged, with the notes struck virtually at random. But the onlookers could care less, and urged me on, especially the older ones, who saw ramajaying as an important tradition that harkens back to the 50s and 60s, an era when pan players extemporized on the streets of Port of Spain J’Ouvert morning. This remains one of my most liberating musical experiences.
J’Ouvert 2018 - Jab Jab
Pan Rebels, Metro and others groups roaming freely through Lefferts Manor, the exclusive enclave in Flatbush, wouldn’t last long. And as expected, a fixed J’Ouvert route, which skirted the historic district, would soon follow. J’Ouvert City International became the recognized organizers of the celebration, securing permits and working with city officials to ensure the event wasn’t shutdown — a threat that still lingers. But curiously, WIADCA (West Indian American Day Carnival Association), the organization responsible for producing the Labor Day Parade on Eastern Parkway and the shows behind the Brooklyn Museum, distanced themselves from the affair. Eventually, J’Ouvert became an approved city parade, with lots of media coverage and a strong police presence.
Pan remained a focal point of J’Ouvert. No electronic music was allowed. Mas quickly became a highlight. The best J’Ouvert costumes were more inventive than the typical retreads seen on Eastern Parkway. Hundreds of Grenadians started portraying jab-jabs, one of the oldest forms of J’Ouvert masquerading. Over time, the crowds grew to tens of thousands, however the composition of the attendees has changed.
The Forever J’Ouvert People who never miss a year. For them, pan on de road is “real pan.” And blue devils, women covered in mud and powder and men with posies round dey neck and oil dripping down dey back is “real mas.” There are the newbies, who are curious, or were told by a friend they must go to J’Ouvert, and then get hooked. But there are also Long-ago J’Ouvert People who say, “Me? I doh go up dey no more. Dem outsiders and de set ah rules spoil de ting.” That comment is usually followed by a lecture on how the celebration originated.
There are countless versions about how J’Ouvert started in Brooklyn. And if you sift through all the tales, a few key players and dates regularly surface. But pinpointing exactly when the predawn celebration was established, and if it was a group effort or the brainchild of a lone wolf, remains elusive and contentious.
Still, there are people who will tell you with absolute certainty how J’Ouvert started, claiming their family, a good friend or they personally had a major role in the initial episode. Then there are the second and third-hand accounts penned by well-meaning academics who attempt to uncover the history by interviewing individuals with alleged firsthand knowledge. Both sources provide valuable insights. However, neither is capable of revealing the complete truth. The oral historians tend to be biased, not considering that their story is one of many. And the written documents are essentially educated guesswork. Besides, there may be many truths.
J’Ouvert’s origins in Flatbush is rarely disputed. Now Kitchener punches a hole in the story. The Grand Master’s calypso makes us aware that a small J’Ouvert band paraded down Fulton Street long before the big bash on Empire Boulevard. Was this the first?
The early 70s J’Ouvert that Kitchener sings about may have been short-lived and enjoyed by a fortunate few. Or maybe it continued unbeknownst to the masses in other parts of the city. I doubt Trinidadians stopped celebrating on the street after feting Labor Day Sunday night. Do you think Flagwoman Janet, Ironman Hanny and calypsonian Scanty went straight home after partying in Tilden Hall?
The essence of J’Ouvert never leaves the people, even when there’s no official parade or formal organization; grand marshal or judging point; mud-mas or pretty-mas.
I wouldn’t dare guess where or when J’Ouvert started in New York City. Why? is an easier question with multiple right answers. By who? yuh looking fuh fight. What I do know is 1990 was my introduction to J’Ouvert in Flatbush, the annual ritual that has become one of the most anticipated events for Labor Day. And sadly, the experience many will miss most in 2020 as the city continues to battle the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Hearts of Steel on the road for J’Ouvert
New York City and J’Ouvert have survived endless setbacks, only to come back stronger. Next year ole mas will replace surgical masks. A hug will replace an elbow bounce. Six feet will be the size of a head piece, not the distance between friends. The alcohol-based liquid tucked in handbags and front pockets won’t be hand sanitizer. And 10,000 people will rejoice when Hearts of Steel come down Nostrand Avenue playing “How Great Thou Art.”
Meanwhile this year, sketches of J’Ouvert will appear on sidewalks in Flatbush, driveways in Canarsie, cookouts in Crown Heights and backyards in Bed Stuy. And when de police ask, “Who Give Them the Okay?” De crowd goh take off dey masks and sing Kitchener’s defiant refrain, “We from, Trinidad, and we come to play. Let them say, that we mad, ‘cause we start J’Ouvert…”