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Brooklyn's West Indian Day Carnival: A Panorama of Steel Drums

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It's a holiday twice over for New Yorkers and others with ties to the Caribbean.  Labor Day also is the day for the annual West Indian American Day Parade. The Brooklyn event is one of the largest in the city.

With an average attendance of 3 million attendees, the West Indian Day parade is even bigger than the Macy's Thanksgiving Day, Gay Pride, and Puerto Rican Day parades. As such, people clad in feathers, bright colored outfits and carrying steel drums will make their way down Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway from Schenectady Avenue in Crown Heights to Grand Army Plaza by the Brooklyn Public Library from 11 A.M. on. The groups marching will bear names like the Sesame Flyers and the Hawks International.

The festivities kicked off on Thursday with a benefit for Haiti. And then on Saturday, there was the Panorama competition - a celebration of the Trinidadian steel drum, the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century.

At Panorama, orchestras made up of 75 to 100 musicians played steel drums in a variety of shapes and sizes—from little "tenor" drums for playing melodies—to "guitars" and "cellos" designed for background chords. There are even big bass pan sets, which are batteries of four-foot tall drums that engulf their acrobatic players.

Each orchestra competes by playing a virtuosic, ten-minute version of a popular calypso song, and the prize goes to the band with the slickest arrangement. It's like Brooklyn's redux version of Port of Spain's massive carnival steel drum orchestra competition. The drummers' complex orchestrations are even played from memory by Brooklyn teenagers—no sheet music needed.

“They learn by ear, it’s not something they can read music for,” says Jane Alexander, the spokesperson for the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. “So, you have to practice over and over and over until the bandleaders decide that the notes are exactly right for presentation in competition.”

Alexander adds that many of the pan tuners, arrangers, and judges come from Trinidad just to perform at Panorama. “So, it’s really a very high level.”

Seven of the steel drum groups competing rented out empty lots and backyards in Brooklyn for use as impromptu training grounds in the months leading up to the carnival festivities.