Diasporic Festivals & Carnivals

West Indian American Day Carnival

Over a million people flock to Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway Labor Day weekend in order to celebrate what has become North America’s largest ethnic event.  Brooklyn’s Carnival attracts revelers throughout the United States in addition to some from other countries such as Canada, England and even the Caribbean.1  The presence of Caribbean residents in New York City’s Caribbean-influenced events demonstrates the transnational relationships maintained with immigrants in New York.   Not only does the creation of the Eastern Parkway parade allow migrants a connection to their homeland, but it also allowed for the expression of national pride.  Although Carnival originated in Trinidad, many different Caribbean groups are represented in the Brooklyn Carnival, which shows the diversity in these communities and the ways in which Caribbean people unite.



These diasporic festivals occur in metropolitan centers that diffused a wide variety of Caribbean culture and arts.  While the majority of music played in the predominantly Trinidadian festival is calyspo and soca music, over the years, the performances have adapted with the growing crowd of non-Trinidadian spectators and participants.  Some musical genres covering the procession in the street now includes Jamaican ska and reggae, cadence from Dominica, merengue from Haiti and spouge, created in Barbados.2  New York City as the home of these Caribbean diasporas plays a large part in the globalization of Caribbean culture due to the extensive diversity.

Author Remco van Capelleveen notes the significance of the Carnival celebration in New York City not just to the migrants but also to the city itself.  The festival has been credited with the start of the “Caribbeanization” of New York City. 3  The popularity and public nature of the parade gives non-Caribbean people the opportunity to learn more about Caribbean culture.  Editors Allen Ray and Lois Wilcken review the transformation of music in these diasporas as a result of “Caribbeanization” in “Island Sounds in the Global City.”  A focus of the text is the notion that New York serves as a hub for immigrants, creating a large variety of cultures that intermix.  From this merging of cultures, new genres of music are created such as Hip Hop and Caribbean Jazz, which integrates aspects of Caribbean and American music.4  In this way, New York’s diversity impacts music in the diasporas and creates a sense of community through a shared form of art and expression.  Additionally, Carnival is a major economic resource of New York City, contributing to millions in business from the over two million spectators of the Carnival events.5



An image of powder-covered people in Prospect park during Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert 6


While Carnival is full of music, dancing and fêting, J’Ouvert is meant to express political criticisms deep-rooted in Trinidad’s history.  On Flatbush Avenue, people gather at 3 am on Labor Day covered in paint, mud, oil, powder or any variety of substances to cover their skin and clothes.

The celebration of J’Ouvert originated in Trinidad, developing over time from the Canboulay festivals.  19th century French colonists in Trinidad created a celebration in which landowners would masquerade and mock slaves.  Following the emancipation of slaves, many used this night to imitate their former masters using satirical costumes and symbols.  Former slaves would cover themselves in molasses, a major export of sugar cane plantations, as a reference to the treatment and labor they endured. 7

Tensions arose when authorities banned the use of torches made of sugar cane.  After numerous riots broke out, the celebration was banned in Trinidad.  However, the resurrection of similar traditions exhibited in J’Ouvert showed resistance to the ban and a want for a way to publicly express political judgments.  Ole mas continues the use of satirical costumes and imagery of demons can be seen in devils mas.  J’Ouvert has developed some traditional costumes such as Jab Molassie, which translates to “molasses devil” from French patois. 8

While most participants confine themselves to paint and baby powder at J'ouvert, some revelers opted for motor oil and grease.

A reveler in traditional Jab Molassie costume in Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert 9

Instead of lard, grease, molasses and soot, mud and paint are most commonly used in today’s J’Ouvert celebrations.  Paint and powder have become iconic of J’Ouvert, exemplified by the soca songs about the festival.  One example is Ravi B and Shal Marshall’s “Dutty” in which the women in the video don shirts with phrases such as “J’Ouvert is Paint” and “You can’t play J’Ouvert & fraid powder.”  Scenes of paint-covered people dancing in clouds of baby powder is featured in the music video and can also be seen in Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert.10

Earl King, panman and J’Ouvert City International founder, was granted permission to organize J’Ouvert in Flatbush for the first time in 1994.  This event, similarly to the Carnival celebration, allowed New Yorkers and visitors to get in touch with Caribbean culture.  Immigrants and American-born Caribbeans celebrate an event with a historically and politically important meaning that was unavailable to the Caribbean diaspora prior to 1994.  Additionally, J’Ouvert aids in incorporating steel pans into diasporic culture with the creation of Panorama, discussed in greater detail under “Soca and Steel Pan.”

There are distinct differences in the two celebrations catered to different crowds.  J’Ouvert adheres to more traditionally Trinidadian practices while Carnival is more multi-cultural.  There is more political importance to Trinidadian migrants in J’Ouvert due to the history behind the festival.  Ole mas allows them this connection to ancestral history.  There is also a variance in the music choices.  The celebration in Flatbush maintains its “steel pan only” rule and revives the use of steel bands in which Eastern Parkway had diminished.  Although Carnival is an event that originates in Trinidad, the diverse cultural factors in the Caribbean diasporas turned the Eastern Parkway parade into a general Caribbean celebration rather than a Trinidadian one.11  In the past, many tensions arose between different Caribbean groups.  However, the mixing of cultures in these diasporas leads to community occasions that honor Caribbean culture as a whole, therefore uniting the people into one group


In an interview conducted with Earl King, he discusses topics such as the changes he witnessed in the Eastern Parkway parade and Caribbean music with the rise in commercialism.  King recounts memories of J’Ouvert in Trinidad, its significance to him and the process of creating a new event in Flatbush, solely for the revival of steel bands. 12  To hear the entire interview, click here and scroll down to “Earl King interview.




  1. Capelleveen, Remco. “The «Caribbeanization» of New York City: West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn” Revue française d’études américaines No. 51 (1992): 29. JSTOR. Web. 05 Apr 2016.
  2. Capelleveen, 30.
  3. Capelleveen, 27-34.
  4. Allen, Ray and Lois Wilcken. “Island Sounds in the Global City.” Google Books. Universityof Illinois Press, 1998. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
  5. Allen, Ray. “J’ouvert in Brooklyn Carnival: Revitalizing Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions”Western Folklore 58.3/4 (1999): 260. JSTOR. Web. 05 Apr 2016.
  6. Lohr-Jones, Albin. Brooklyn J’Ouvert. Digital image. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. N.p., 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.
  7. Allen, 256.
  8. Paul, Dylan. Jab Molassie. n/a. 14 May 2016 <http://www.traditionalmas.com/project/jab-molassie/>.
  9. Lohr-Jones, Albin. Brooklyn J’Ouvert. Digital image. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. N.p., 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.
  10. FOXFUSEMusic. “Ravi B & Shal Marshall – “Dutty” (Official HD Video).”YouTube. YouTube, 10 Dec. 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.
  11. Ray, Allen. “J’Ouvert! Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions in Brooklyn Carnival.” City Lore. Web. 05 Apr 2016.
  12. King, Earl. “Steel Pan and Caribbean Music in New York City’s Diasporas.” Telephone interview. 15 May 2016.