Carnival Time in Brooklyn

Every Labor Day, the annual West Indian Carnival parade draws millions of spectators and revelers to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn to watch Caribbean-New Yorkers celebrate their vibrant culture with floats, brilliantly costumed masqueraders, stilt dancers, and bands. Although the parade is hardly an under-the-radar event, plenty of pre-Carnival festivities are equally interesting and much less widely known. I’m fascinated by the pan yards, the vacant lots scattered around Brooklyn, where the steel orchestras practice for months in advance. They’re getting ready for the main event of Labor Day weekend’s Saturday night, the Panorama Competiton. Last week I toured pan yards in the company of Caitlin Van Dusen of City Lore and Ray Funk, a retired judge from Alaska, who is one of the world’s greatest experts on Trinidadian Calypso and steel bands in general.

Our first stop was a parking lot on Utica Avenue, home of the CrossFire Steel Orchestra. On this night, the band’s name turned out to be especially apt. Directly across the street from the pan yard was an amplified tent revival meeting where hundreds of people sang, shouted amen, and, when prompted, growled at the devil. When the CrossFire players took a break from their drums, you could hear the preacher firmly denouncing steel bands as instruments of sin.

The preacher was misinformed — or at least out of date. At most of the five or so pan yards we visited in 2013, nearly half of the players were well-chaperoned teenage girls. Our last stop of the evening was Despers, on Classon Avenue, where we bought a delicious tamarind-flavored sandwich and a beer and watched these spirited players. Young women are taking over pan!

Visiting a pan yard is always a chancy business: it rains, the band moves to a different location with little notice, they’re practicing only a tiny part of the arrangement over and over. It’s always good to call ahead – if you can get someone to answer the phone. A list of phone numbers and locations is here. Or simply enjoy the results of all that practice at the Panorama battle of the bands on Saturday of Carnival weekend.

There are other noteworthy Carnival events, from Calypso contests to gospel concerts, and even a pre-dawn, anything-goes parade on Monday called J’Ouvert. But one of the best ways to experience the weekend is the spectacle held on the eve of Labor Day behind the Brooklyn Museum. Dimanche Gras has everything: Calypso stars, stilt walkers, candidates for the king and queen of Carnival, some in costumes as tall as the Museum itself, as well as the winner of the steel band contest held the previous night.

To get your steel drum fix before the close of summer, check out the performers and orchestras highlighted in this piece this weekend. Happy Labor Day!