It’s one of the biggest celebrations in New York, a five-day extravaganza encompassing Labor Day weekend and concluding with the West Indian American Day Parade, featuring costumed revelers marching and dancing through the streets of Brooklyn.
Welcome to the New York Caribbean Carnival, where live bands fill the air with music and vendors sell homestyle island food and crafts.
Carnival-goers wear the flags of Caribbean nations and dance as vehicles blasting music pass by. The festivities are dominated by two main events: the overnight J’ouvert celebration leading up to the carnival’s big parade, and the parade itself on Labor Day.
J’ouvert (a term adapted from the French words jour ouvert, or “daybreak”) is a pre-dawn street party that peaks shortly after sunrise. Originating in 1838, when slavery was abolished in the Caribbean, it was a means for emancipated Africans to participate in Carnival (previously forbidden to them under the Caribbean’s colonial rulers) while embracing their newfound freedom.
In Brooklyn, Jamaican reggae artists and other musicians contribute to the carnival’s atmosphere. This float of music-makers keeps up a steady beat for crowds at the cross streets of Bedford Avenue and Empire Boulevard.
Brooklyn — the most populous of New York’s five boroughs — is home to more than 370,000 people of Caribbean descent, so it’s the logical site for this event, which highlights the Caribbean’s history and traditions as well as the contributions of Caribbean Americans to U.S. economic and cultural life.
Here, a parade participant proudly displays her Grenadian flag.
Each year, the carnival attracts an estimated 1.5 million people from the U.S. and elsewhere.
Here, a “Paint Army” float passes through Prospect Park’s Flatbush Boulevard, encouraging participants to toss paint and powder at each other.
The ritual of tossing powder and paint reportedly has its roots in early 19th-century Trinidad, where enslaved people once smeared themselves with paint or oil to avoid recognition during uprisings. Young and old join in, including entire families, except for small children. (More child-focused activities, including a kids’ carnival, take place earlier in the week.)
The celebration draws on a rich diaspora, with representation from Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, French Guiana, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Just after dawn, this participant, wearing a Jamaican-flag bandanna, takes a break from the carnival festivities, which have left his arms and clothes coated with paint.
At just past 8 a.m. on Labor Day, the main parade begins.
People gather to watch parade floats while bands from Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and the U.S. Virgin Islands perform calypso, soca (an offshoot of calypso with elements of funk and soul), rap, hip-hop and R&B (rhythm and blues) music.
As a float passes behind her, this young woman waves the flag of Trinidad and Tobago, proclaiming pride in her family’s country of origin. The 49th annual carnival, held in September, boasted a theme of “One Caribbean, One People, One Voice” and celebrated the region’s rich culture.
Spectators cheer for the parade floats as they pass by. Meanwhile, masqueraders and dancers compete for carnival titles, accompanied by the rhythms of live music from Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.
Earlier this year, during National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, President Obama said, “We celebrate the contributions of our Caribbean-American brothers and sisters, and we reflect on how they have bolstered our country and enriched our traditions.”
A steel-drum band, Despers USA — among the carnival’s many bands from Trinidad and Tobago, New York and London — plays on Nostrand Avenue while spectators look on. Steel-band music began in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s, then spread rapidly to the rest of the Caribbean and eventually to diaspora populations elsewhere.
A long line of marchers in the parade sport feathered headdresses as part of a “Fancy Indian” tradition, paying tribute to North American Indian tribes. With its joyful mix of pageantry, music and food, the carnival blends a respect for U.S. traditions and diversity while keeping the Caribbean spirit going strong for diaspora communities in the New York area.
Food vendors alongside the parade route do a brisk business, selling fresh-cooked Caribbean dishes like jerk chicken (marinated in a spicy “jerk” sauce), roti (a tortilla-like bread, usually stuffed with chicken, goat or chickpeas), fish cakes and more.
The enticing aromas of Caribbean cuisine tell a story of immigrants from Caribbean countries who have opened small restaurants and catering businesses. (In the U.S., immigrants are almost twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as the native-born.)
A musician from the band Pagwah uses a cowbell for percussion while entertaining carnival-goers. During competition, Pagwah won the title of top band in the Fancy Ole Mas category (‘mas’ is short for ‘masquerade’). The parade’s procession of carnival ‘mas’ bands and floats snakes along a route lined by spectators and vendors, offering unparalleled street theater.
A flag bearer walks through a cloud of baby powder as neighbors turn out to watch. As the West Indian American Day Parade winds down, the carnival brings a close to the holiday that marks the unofficial end of summer in the United States.
Staff writer Lauren Monsen and photo editor Sherry L. Brukbacher contributed to this gallery.