Events are held every year from the Thursday before Labor Day through the weekend, culminating in the parade on Labor Day itself. The parade now proceeds from Utica Avenue along Eastern Parkway to Grand Army Plaza. Highlights include a steel band competition, a Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday) extravaganza and a special Kiddie Carnival which runs from President Street to the grounds of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
What is the West Indian-American Day Carnival?
The centerpiece of the Carnival is the extraordinarily colorful parade that wends its way down Eastern Parkway on Labor Day. Thousands of masqueraders dance their way along miles of Parkway flanked by dense crowds of onlookers. Floats loaded with elaborately costumed revelers illustrate a particular theme chosen by each parading group, masquerade band or camp for that year. Each masquerade camp or "mas" works feverishly and with great skill to produce imaginative and spectacular costumes and to compete for cash prizes. In 1974, a designer made mammoth leaves with mosquitoes on them; trees with beehives; grasshoppers and caterpillars; squirrels eating nuts; logs bearing orchids; foam-rubber poinsettias and hibiscus. Past themes include A Tribute to Bob Marley, Caribbeans Unite, Samba Brazil, Baila Baila, African Feelings in We, In the Garden of Good and Evil, Seascape, Jewels of de City, Bees Melody and Gladiators. The pageantry and excitement, and extraordinary inventiveness, mechanical ingenuity and vibrant color of the costumes and floats are hard to convey in words.
Preparations for Carnival begin months in advance. Masqueraders may be committed to a particular club or band, which selects a designer who provides drawings and a concept for the entire display. Other masqueraders may seek out a band that takes their fancy. Each camp will produce numerous, sometimes hundreds of costumes embodying the camp concept. The king and queen costumes are the most elaborate, while those for the ancillary characters are less complex. Creations may involve construction using wire, fabric and many other materials (see "West Indian Carnival facts at a glance"). Costumes are the property of the masquerader or in some cases the collective property of the club. Cash prizes are given to the bands on the basis of their originality, beauty and performance.
Carnival is much more than the parade and costumes, though. Music plays an important part in creating such an exhilarating atmosphere. Visitors to the festival might hear calypso, which grew out of traditional folk music in Trinidad and Tobago; soca, a contemporary offshoot of calypso that is performed by large bands with drums, congas, bass, guitars, keyboards, saxophones, brass and backing vocalists; rap; and reggae, a style with Jamaican roots.
Perhaps the most characteristic sound of the Carnival is the steel band. When drums were banned by the British government in Trinidad, Trinidadians began using all kinds of objects as percussion instruments. Steel bands began developing in the 1930s and 1940s when musicians discovered that a dented section of an oil drum could produce a note. Tuners began experimenting to produce tuned "pans" and soon formed groups of players. At the Carnival, steel bands play to win the "Panorama" competition, although in the parade itself amplified bands tend to overwhelm the purely acoustic steel band sound.
Another essential ingredient of the Carnival is food. Sidewalk vendors set up mouthwatering displays of Caribbean food all along Eastern Parkway. It is almost impossible to resist the delicious cooking smells that waft through the September air. Some of the dishes that can be found at the Carnival are codfish fritters, rice and peas, butterfly shrimp kebabs, curried chicken, fish cakes, raw sugarcane, fresh coconut, roti, curried goat, meat patties, coconut bread, hot dogs, jerk chicken, pelau (rice with meat), escovitch fish, fried plantains, chicken wings, Italian ice, sweet potato pie, oxtail, fried flying fish, ackee, aloo pie, bake (fried dough), breadfruit, Italian sausage, roasted corn, beef patties, roasted goat meat, rice balls and carrot cake; beverages include rum punch, sorrel tea, ginger beer, beer and coconut water. Anyone wishing to explore Caribbean cuisine can get a tasty introduction by walking along Eastern Parkway on Labor Day.
Vendors of many other kinds of goods including African sculptures and beadwork, and items from the Caribbean also add to the lively atmosphere.
Some claim that the Carnival has become New York's largest cultural celebration, drawing crowds estimated between 1 and 3 million each year. The Carnival has even been featured in one of the state's "I Love New York" commercials promoting tourism in New York. Visitors come from as far as Canada and the United Kingdom, while others travel from New Jersey and Connecticut. A 2003 study found that the total economic impact of the Carnival was $154,800,000, though organizers claim the figure is closer to $200 million (Hardbeat News, Sept. 8, 2004). The success of the Carnival has inspired imitators in other cities such as Miami and Boston.
Aside from its economic impact, the Carnival is an assertion of pan-Caribbean culture, bringing together people from different island nations under one umbrella, and demonstrating to the rest of the world the power and vibrancy of the peoples of the Caribbean. Politicians from within and outside of the Caribbean community are keen to make their presence felt in Brooklyn on Labor Day, a day to see and to be seen.
All photos copyright Elaine Norman.