Monday, September 1, 2008
Do's and don'ts of J'Ouvert Brooklyn
Every Labor Day, the West Indian Day parade - also known as Carnival - turns Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn into a sea of feathers, soca, and jerk chicken. It attracts upwards of three million people and is one of the premier parties in the United States.
Little known, however, is another parade that begins a little earlier in the morning - at 2 am to be precise. It's called J'Ouvert (from the French jour ouvert, or day open), and it's a somewhat smaller, more intimate affair. Unlike the million watt sound systems of Carnival, J'Ouvert is limited to steel drum "floats" - ragtag collections of pushcarts pulled along by U-Haul vans. It's a fantastic party, and because of the smaller size, everyone is encouraged to march along with the bands. (More on that later.)
Anyways, little is found on the web regarding this party, so I thought I'd share some do's and don'ts for enjoying J'Ouvert.
DO NOT: Show up at 2 am. It'll probably be a ghost town. There's a big Dimanche Gras party that goes until 2 am, and then people take their time getting situated. It's a West Indian party, and everyone is on Caribbean time. Get there at 4:30 am and you'll be fine. That's when things started moving last night.
DO: Start at the Grand Army Plaza side of Flatbush Avenue, at the Brooklyn Public Library. The bands get set up on Flatbush between Eastern Parkway and Empire Boulevard. It then travels down Empire until Nostrand Avenue, where it takes a right and continues on to Linden Boulevard.
DO NOT: Wear nice clothes. You will get dirty. There's baby powder. And sparkles. And lots of paint - most of which doesn't seem to be water soluble. Unless you're quick, you'll get hit with one or more of these objects.
DO: Bring something to drink. There's nothing around on this stretch of Flatbush, and there was only one person selling bottles of water along the route in the wee hours. If you're going to dance, you'll want water. And perhaps something else. Remember, clear "liquids" are for clear bottles only. For beverages of mixed elements, I'd consider a SIGG. I'll let you draw your own conclusions, and of course I would never suggest breaking the law. Even if it is only a $25 fine these days.
DO NOT: Go to this parade if you're not prepared to take part in the celebration. You may find yourself being warned to "Dance or go home" by a very large Haitian woman in a skimpy French maid's outfit. That was the point last night where I decided that I was done taking pictures and should start dancing. Large Haitian/French maids are very persuasive.
DO: Find your favorite band early, and get as close as you can. While El Dorado - City of Gold seemed to be very popular, I was more impressed with a non-descript band of probably 30 or so steel pan players. Take the time before the parade starts moving to see all of the bands strutting their stuff, and stick to the one that seems to suit your taste. And be prepared to like the song that they're currently playing - it's likely that they'll only play that and perhaps one other tune.
DO NOT: Start after Empire Boulevard. It seems that once you get to Bedford Avenue, foot traffic is one-way only - away from the parade. If you leave the cordoned-off area, you won't be able to get back in. Well, at least easily.
DO: Grab some food from the food vendors set up along Empire. I had a fantastic bake and saltfish from a Trinidadian/Guyanese vendor near Rogers Avenue. There's lots of places serving corn soup, and by 6 am there was jerk chicken being thrown on makeshift grills constructed from oil drums. If you're not a fan of street food (even though you should be), Hammond's Bakery and Jerk Center on Nostrand is open all night for all of your jerk needs.
Got any other tips? Please post them in the comments.