What gets billed in the New York press as "the West Indian Day Parade" is actually a sequence of events, modeled on the events that take place in a carnival country like Trinidad and Tobago, except that their events happen in the days before Lent and in New York they happen over all of Labor Day weekend.
The Labor Day parade is a bunch of trucks and floats loudly playing soca and calypso music, which is (I think) how they roll in Jamaica and a few of the bigger island nations. But Trinidad is where the steel drum (or "pan") was invented and they have a long tradition of steel drum bands, as well as "mas" (costume making).
Thus the weekend begins with a pan contest that for years was held in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum, but got moved around over the last five years because of fights amongst the organizers. It's called Panorama and I went with my wife before we had kids. It is really something to see. Just amazing.
It starts about midnight on the Saturday night before Labor Day. Each steel drum band has between 50 and 200 players. No microphones or amplification, so the way you get more volume is by getting a better reputation for creativity and adopting more drummers to your team. The top bands – like Phase II Pan Groove – might have ten or twenty "lead pan" players, another twenty playing counterpoint, another twenty tenor pans, and maybe forty bass pans. In your minds' eye, imagine that each bass player has about five steel drums surrounding him and you can imagine that the biggest bands can be ten to fifty trucks big and take up a couple of city blocks. They have to load each band on stage and West Indians aren't really known for their speed. The music goes all night.
Each band plays for about a half hour -- these amazing orchestrations of classical music, American popular music, and Caribbean classics. It is something you should really hear once in your life if you live in this amazing borough.
That's Saturday night. Then Sunday morning the musicians all sleep in while there is a parade of mas (like "masks"). These are kids up to grownups who have spent the year making costumes. Each mas team has a "king" and queen," so they might have for example a theme of "the sun" and then the king and queen each have costumes about thirty feet tall. They are surrounded by about a hundred or two hundred kids in smaller sun costumes. Awards go out for the best themes, best creativity, and other such things. There are also moko jambies, which are basically stilt walking kids in costumes.
Then on Sunday night/Monday morning there is Joovay. That comes from the French "Jour Ouvert," which means opening day. That is a mini parade before the big parade, some starting about midnight, with music a bit more specific to certain ethnicities. There are actually a bunch of separate Joovays for different islands. They are all in my experience welcoming to tourists and non-islanders who find them.
The Times wrote a story on Haitians today, and covered the Haitian J'Ouvert.
There are also Trini Joovays and Bahamian Joovays and on and on.
I've been away a few weeks, but if I remember, I'll write this up for PSP next August. Someone should really pull the whole schedule from the West Indian Day Organizing Committee (they are at http://www.wiadca.com/ ) and write it up as a post for PSP. More people should see this stuff and not just the crowded trucks on Eastern Parkway playing "wave that flag." For 2010, it's all over. You should be able to get some sleep tonight.
(The answer is more than you bargained for, I'm sure.)