“I don’t have a son, so this is my legacy,” said Roy Pierre last Thursday night as he showed a small busload of visitors the elaborate costumes he was preparing for J’Ouvert. Pierre is an institution at J’Ouvert, the celebration that kicks off the West Indian Day Parade in Crown Heights. His organization, Roy Pierre & Associates, have created elaborate costumes with themes like “Running of the Bulls,” “Arabian Nights,” and “Jolly Roger (Pirates Meet Mermaids)” over the years. This year, he'll continue the nautical theme with “All Hands on Deck," an allusion to the 1961 musical motion picture of the same name. The navy uniform costumes mix the film’s aesthetic with the spirit and vibe of J’Ouvert.
“Roy Pierre is one of most important masquerade designers and thought leaders” in the community, Christopher Mulé, the Folk Arts Director at the Brooklyn Arts Council, told Gothamist. Last Thursday, Mule and the Brooklyn Arts Council, in collaboration with J’Ouvert City International and City Lore, led the first ever bus tour as a way to bring New Yorkers closer to the artists and musicians who are preparing like crazy for J’Ouvert, now one week away. Roy Pierre’s mas (short for "masquerade") camp, held inside of Creme & Cocoa Creamery, an ice cream and dessert shop with flavors like sour sop and sorrel ice cream, was the first stop.
The bus tour is one of the ways the Council is trying to steer the narrative around J’Ouvert towards the artists who contribute to it, and away from the headlines about violence that have overshadowed J’Ouvert in recent years. Two people were killed at J’Ouvert in 2015, including Carey Gabay, Governor Andrew Cuomo's first deputy counsel. Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a “massive police presence” at the 2016 J’Ouvert. Nevertheless, a man and woman were killed and four others were injured. Last year, security was heightened further with checkpoints and the start time was moved to 6 a.m. There were no deaths last year, but some participants said the celebrations were dampened by overbearing security measures, ones that will remain in place this year.
While violence is a serious problem plaguing J’Ouvert, there's another issue that threatens the celebration: money, or lack of it. Almost all of these artists pay everything out of pocket to keep their mas camps and steelpan yards alive, said Mulé. He noted that in the five years he has been awarding artistic grants, there has only been one application from a steel band. One reason that the Brooklyn Arts Council created this bus tour was to see if increasing exposure to these camps and bands can bring in fresh sources of funds for their work. Mulé is trying to find out if “there a market for cultural tourism” through programs like these.
After Roy Pierre finished his presentations, the tour proceeded down Nostrand Avenue to the Carenage mas camp. Their theme is Wakanda, complete with spears, thrones and suits of armor. After showing off the costumes, the Carenage members uncovered a buffet of food and drink, which included stewed chicken, lo mein, coconut rolls, accra (a saltfish fritter) and a spicy and hearty fish broth. The food was optional, but the broth, I was told, was mandatory, as it was pushed into my hands. It was slightly spicy and richly flavored but still felt light—the perfect thing after too many saltfish fritters.
Other mas camps on the tour included Republic of John John, whose theme was Panama, with Kendell Julien, one of the leaders of the camp, dressing up as Manuel Noriega himself. Then to the panyards of Kutters Rhythm Section, where instruments included a 2-note drum made from a steel barrel, iron drums made from car and truck hubcaps that were tuned by ear, and a large wooden shaker.
At the Despers USA panyard practice session, at least 30 musicians played the steel drums in unison, while the bandleader orchestrated the group. People from all over the neighborhood watched the practice, as the musicians synchronized in perfect harmony. Meanwhile, police cars and fire trucks appeared outside the practice session, and a woman who was arrested last year after continuously calling 311 during the band’s practice sessions was seen speaking to police officers.
Gentrification is a big problem for groups practicing for J’Ouvert, Mulé told Gothamist. Crown Heights rents are going up, lots that were formerly used as panyards are now construction sites, and fewer landlords want to rent out to these groups. In some gentrifying neighborhoods, 311 calls for noise complaints increase. But on Thursday night, the police and firefighters eventually left, and Despers USA continued to practice past 11 p.m.
J'Ouvert begins at 6 a.m. Monday September 3rd on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.