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Just like in Charlotte Street
I’ll tell the story from where it started. With the full 2 am flight from Piarco to Newark last weekend. By 10, I was in Brooklyn, in my Tobagonian friend’s mother’s apartment in Ebbets Field, the enormous public housing complex gubernatorial aide Carey Gabay’s shooter fired from, a killing that now defines New York City’s Caribbean Carnival. A friend in New Jersey tried to panic me the night before the flight about staying there. But all over central Brooklyn, from my 21st-floor window, or on the street, I saw fearless White settlers, their baby carriages, dogs and bicycles, brand new buildings, even a Starbucks on Franklin Avenue.
I hadn’t been to Labour Day in almost a decade, and long before Gabay’s death I’d been one of those West Indian New Yorkers who scorned the festival and promoted its association with violence. Perhaps because it made me lonely. The sorry glitter of the costumes, the migrants like artefacts fossilised in whatever year they’d arrived, the phalanx of dirty white streetsweepers cleansing the Eastern Parkway roadway of its Caribbeanness at dusk that signalled the shortening days and the growing cold.
New York Carnival couldn’t scratch you to any satisfaction, just make you itch more.
When I started going, it was to shop. There was little on the Parkway to see: Jewish politicians, throngs of T-shirted Haitians, nothing for long stretches. One year the same friend from Tobago convinced me to buy a costume, get up early and play Parkway mas. It was miserable. Mayor Giuliani’s quality of life campaign had started police harassment of noisy neighbourhood mas camps and backyard parties; dislocated panyards to industrial pockets on the outskirts of the borough, alongside junkyards and bodyshops.
And it had ended las lap, requiring bands’ big-trucks in neon lights to “Turn Music Off” once they crossed the reviewing stand. Worse, the next day I was nauseous and couldn’t walk, diagnosed with hypermobility in the knees, sentenced to never dance again. I walked haunted through the streets like it was cancer. Until I found a scrappy rheumatologist who didn’t take insurance, and told me just take an NSAID before and after, I’d eventually need knee replacements when I got old, but the technology was getting better and better. I now play mas with impunity, and Celebrex. But never again on Labour Day.
So why did I fly to Brooklyn?
For pan. Two nights liming in panyards. Panorama on Saturday. And that would be worth the trip. I had no other plans.
Not even Jouvay. I eventually became a Brooklyn Jouvay peong. Folks reminded me last weekend of the white tennis skirt I went in one year; and there’s the year it poured and we jumped along Empire Blvd chanting “Long time we doh wet like dis.” Jouvay’s crowning moment, after dawn, was when the throng of Grenadian jab molassies would come down, chanting the mayor’s name and his birth canal to the rhythm of their iron, every year of his tenure, and after they had passed, not a single police vehicle had remained white. Brooklyn Jouvay started as a vibrant, unregimented alternative to the limpness of the Parkway. When you could cross four neighbourhoods from night into morning, chipping behind a steelband.
But even before Gabay’s 2015 murder, and the two last year, other Monday morning violence had led its “organisers” to collude with the City in Jouvay’s overpolicing. “We are extremely concerned that darkness is when everything ([bad) happens,” the New York Daily News famously quoted Trinidadian-American Yvette Rennie, president of the 13-year-old group formed to protect the Jouvay from the police, in a July article by the paper’s Caribbean-American sub-editor Jared McCallister. Headlined “Brooklyn’s mayhem-marred J’Ouvert fest,” it spoke of gun and gang violence.
Rennie’s thinking was precisely the NYPD’s criminology. They set up klieg lights on any pavement near the Jouvay one might think to lime on, and turned them on at 5 pm when it was still daylight, from Thursday on. And, as McCallister’s article reported, 2017’s event would not begin officially until daylight. Alcohol has been formally banned for years; this year so were backpacks.
I listened to the sunlit Jouvay go past my window, ignored friends’ texts of their location that ended “Bring ID.” I’d already had that experience, along with police metal-detecting wands, trying to get home Sunday night, hours before it started. An idle officer I asked how to get through the barricaded streets, from where my ride had to leave me several blocks away, said she didn’t know the area, ask someone on the street.
From all the Caribbean Carnivals I’ve done around the world, there are only two things I appreciate outside of Port-of-Spain’s: One is Grenada Spice Mas’s black-devil Jouvays—all three.
The other is Brooklyn’s pan. It’s world class. I discovered its sweetness late, but when I did, it was all that Labour Day Carnival became to me.
Now let me start the story again at the end of pan. When I walked up to thank a big young man in Pan Evolution’s frontline who is the future of the instrument. It was going on to 6 pm on Sunday, almost 23 hours after the scheduled start of the competition. The band had finally beaten, last of all the entrants. The small crowd went wild over their arrangement of Full Extreme.
So they played it all over again from start to finish. The crowd was right up close. There was no stage. No prize money was at stake. There was no amplification. Perhaps this is how Panorama ought to be.
Except none of this was supposed to be. So next week I will tell the story of the start of the Panorama I flew to Brooklyn for, and how the West Indian American Day Carnival Association and its Yankee president marked the Carnival’s 50th anniversary by rolling pan players and patrons in canal, just like in Charlotte St.