By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The West Indian-American Day Carnival and Parade is coming to Brooklyn on Labor Day for the 45th year and is expected to attract more than 2 million people.
Along Eastern Parkway, one will be able to hear the sounds of calypso, reggae, zouk (a style of music from the French Caribbean), soca (“soul calypso,” a more dance-oriented style of calypso) and more.
Although the parade originated with immigrants from Trinidad, nowadays you can see floats representing Jamaica, Haiti, Guyana, and everywhere in the Caribbean. And while you’re there, you can also sample Caribbean delicacies such as roti, calalloo, ackee fish and more.
The parade is also famous for its costumes. “Mas [masquerade] camps” work for months on elaborate costumes for the parade, often incorporating feathers, spangles and fans. When a Caribbean-American schoolteacher once told this writer, “I used to jump up, but I didn’t play mas,” what he was saying was, “I used to dance and celebrate, but I didn’t wear a costume.”
Before the parade itself, there are several events that either take place or culminate in the Brooklyn Museum’s parking lot, according to Jane Alexander, a spokeswoman for the West Indian American Day Carnival Association.
Among these are a “Stay in School” concert for youths on Friday from 1 to 4 p.m., featuring various types of music, a martial arts demonstration and a fashion show; a Brass Fest, featuring brass bands, on Friday beginning at 8 p.m.; a Children’s Carnival on Saturday, starting at 8 a.m. at Kingston Avenue and St. John’s Place and ending at the museum grounds; and a “Dimanche Gras” (Great Sunday) celebration on Sunday starting at 6 p.m., starring veteran calypso performers Calypso Rose and Black Stalin as well as the bands WCK from Dominica and Crossfire from Barbados.
According to Alexander, almost every calypso singer of note has performed at the Labor Day parade and its associated events. The Mighty Sparrow, the acknowledged king of calypso music, has been there almost every year, “although he’s not coming this year because he has health problems.”
The well-known party song “Hot, Hot, Hot” was first performed by its originator, Arrow, “right here, in back of the Brooklyn Museum,” she said.
The morning before the parade itself, a smaller, pre-dawn parade known as “J’Ouvert” (“I Open”), originated by Haitian immigrants, takes place. This parade, whose floats are limited to steel bands, starts from Grand Army Plaza, then proceeds down Flatbush Avenue and east on Empire Boulevard to Nostrand Avenue.
The main parade on Monday begins around 11 a.m., and proceeds from Utica Avenue along Eastern Parkway to Grand Army Plaza. This year’s grand marshals are Trinidadian soca singer-songwriter Machel Montano, singer-activist Harry Belafonte and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Asked about Belafonte, Alexander said, “This is the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, and Harry Belafonte is one of the most prominent Americans of Jamaican descent.” As for Quinn, she said, “We’ve always had at least one politician – one year, it was Hillary Clinton.”
The parade has also been known, unfortunately, for incidents of violence. This came to a head last year, when a shootout on a street corner off the parade route left two police officers wounded and three people, including a bystander who was sitting on a nearby stoop, dead.
Alexander called the shootout “a horrendous situation.” She said that this year, in addition to the NYPD and the parade’s own marshals, the floats will be providing their own security.
The parade has its roots in the Catholic tradition of pre-Lenten carnivals. In Trinidad, it is held just before Ash Wednesday, but in New York its date was changed to September because of the weather. The parade was held in Harlem from the 1920s until the mid-1960s, and then moved to Brooklyn.