Someone asked me once to describe J’Ouvert (Jou-vay), the early morning ritual that ushers in the first day of Carnival, sometimes still called Old Years Mas on the island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. I fumbled for words. J’Ouvert is wild. J’Ouvert is frenzy. J’Ouvert is pounding bass on a big truck, steel pan, rattling cowbells or just the “ting-a-ling ting-a-ling” of bottle of spoon. J’Ouvert is masquerade with or without actual masks. J’Ouvert is whining and “back back.” J’Ouvert is sexuality both liberated and restrained. J’Ouvert is the sacred and profane, the humorous and the macabre. J’Ouvert is the warning hint of a riot that organizes itself into chaos. J’Ouvert is ex-slaves with flaming torches and chains threatening to burn it all down. J’Ouvert is rum. Lots and lots of rum. J’Ouvert is devils–red devils, blue devils, devils dripping black tar and spitting fire. J’Ouvert is baby powder and paint. J’Ouvert is MUD. MUD. MUD. J’Ouvert in the end, is magic. Wonderful, fantastic, dangerous magic.
*photo courtesy of the film After Mas, taken by Joseph Mora
The term J’Ouvert (pronounced Jou-vay) is derived from the creolized French patois, a contraction of “jour” and “ouvert.” It’s essential meaning is the “day opener.” As a ritual, it begins in the early morning hours before dawn–a frenetic burst of revelry before the official start of Carnival.
J’Ouvert’s roots go back to the arrival of Pre-Lenten Carnival with the French plantation owners in the Eastern Caribbean. Many were fleeing the rebellion and revolution that was engulfing their colonies, as slaves rose up in Saint-Domingue (soon to be Haiti), Guadeloupe and elsewhere to destroy the brutalizing sugar industries that had made France a commercial empire. They were invited to places like Trinidad by local colonial governors, eager to have them bring their expertise at wealth. And they brought with them slaves, in the hundreds.
J’Ouvert in Trinidad is thought to have originated with celebrations and performances of Cannes Brulées or Canboulay [an alternative theory traces the term Canboulay as a corruption of the West African Ko word kambule]. When a sugarcane field was threatened by fire, slaves from surrounding plantations were rounded up, put into work gangs and forcibly marched by drivers to the accompaniment of horns and shells–an instrument of their culture adopted by the slave regime. Under the threat of the whip, they were made to quickly harvest what was left of the cane before it was completely destroyed.
This scene of “burning cane,” Cannes Brulées, became reenacted at first by the white ruling elite. Men wore costumes mimicking black male slaves such as the negre de jardin, while white women masqueraded as haughty “mulattresses.” Carrying flaming torches, they marched and danced through the streets in mockery of the forced laborers that made their wealth possible.
Emancipation changed that in 1834. The former slaves quickly adapted the ritual of Canboulay for themselves, picking up burning canes and taking to the streets in the early morning to celebrate their freedom. The social order was turned on its head, as ex-slaves chanting to drums and dancing to African-derived rhythms, made Canboulay their own–making mockery of their former masters mocking them.
Kalenda, or stick fighting, was common throughout many parts of the Caribbean. depicted here: early stick fighting “between English and French Negroes in the island of Dominica,” 1779, Agostino Brunias
By 1838, Canboulay night and the streets was owned by the former slaves–the white elite now surrendering it to these new revelers who used it as a space to celebrate and commemorate their freedom from bondage. The Canboulay first started at midnight on Sunday, a procession of men and women, beating drums and blowing horns. They were joined by the stick fighters, whose kalenda came with its own music, dance and rituals of violence–always threatening to spill out of control. And loss of control was precisely what colonial authorities most feared, as black bodies no longer under their power disrupted boundaries and pressed the limits of their newly won freedom.
A self-described “Scotchman” traveling in Trinidad in 1838 described what in his eyes was a society turned upside down and on the edge of incivility:
Repeated attempts were made to suppress the celebrations, by administrators, police and clergy–but with no success. In the back and forth battle that typified this struggle for colonial control, it was finally issued by gubernatorial decree in the 1840s that Canboulay would be moved to Monday morning, away from the hallowed Sabbath–an act that now tied it even more firmly to Carnival proper.
At these events celebrants carried torches, but also increasingly engaged in masquerade. Some wore the old negre de jardin. Others wore rags to symbolize slavery, and carried heavy chains while participants flogged them with mock whips. Some painted their faces white, in mimicry of the ruling class. Others covered themselves in all black, a possible nod to the Jab Molassie–said to be a slave who fell (or was pushed) into a vat of burning molasses, only tp return as a frightful spirit. Characters from folklore–jumbies and hordes of devils–joined the nightly procession. The varied groups would choose kings and queens as well, blending European and African forms of royalty, and parade the streets with reckless abandon. These traditions, and the music that accompanied them, was continually buttressed by new migrants from throughout the Afro-Caribbean and later by indentured servants from China and India.
A white visitor in 1848, fascinated by the presence of what he termed “Mandingo priests” and “African negro Mohammedans” on the streets, described his later encounter with the “splendour” of a “negro masquerade” in Canboulay and Carnival:
The maskers parade the streets in gangs of from ten to twenty, occasionally joining in procession. The primitives were negroes, as nearly naked as might be, bedaubed in a black varnish. One of this gang had a long chain and padlock attached to his leg, which chain the others pulled. What this typified I was unable to learn; but, as the chained one was occasionally thrown down on the ground, and treated with a mock bastinadoing, it probably represented slavery.
For several decades thereafter, the Canboulay procession would herald what became known as “Jamette” Carnival–the Carnival of the lower classes, of ex-slaves and laborers, thieves and badjohns, prostitutes and pimps. Defying, and often discarding, social mores and values, Jamette was a ridiculing and satire of the upper classes and colonial authority. It was, as one cultural historian called it, “the Carnival of the plebs.” For local magistrates it was a thing “disreputable” and they grew increasingly frustrated at their inability (through endless ordinances) to stop “the noise, tumult and barbarian mirth” that had taken over their streets.
But Canboulay was not simply celebration. In the fraught and increasingly diverse social atmosphere of Trinidad, differences in customs, languages, religions and traditions created rivalries–all of it brought to a simmering boil during Canboulay. Tensions between the varied “gangs” of stick fighters and masqueraders could, and often did, erupt into violence. An 1868 account tells of bands of mostly women (with some men) parading at Canboulay, broken into sections with names like Black Ball, Dahlia, Don’t-Care-A-Damn, Mousseline and True Blue. At about 1:45AM, a fight broke out when the True Blues and Dahlias attacked the Mousselines. While those at the front of the fray were men armed with their “bois” (sticks), the majority of the fighters were the women–who had hidden batons beneath their elaborate dress.
To the elite classes and authority the source of Carnival’s deviance lay in Canboulay, its beating heart. Newspaper accounts denounced the procession as immoral, deviant and riotous. One witness described the ritual as a commencement of nightly “orgies” from which came “the fearful howling of a parcel of semi-savages emerging God knows wherefrom, exhibiting hellish scenes and the most demoniacal representations of the days of slavery as they were 40 years ago: then using the mask the two following days as a mere cloak for every species of barbarism and crime.”
Lighted torches (flambeaux), drums and sticks–the very instruments of Canboulay–were banned from Carnival in 1868. But they continued to appear every year. By the late 1870s, the new police commandant “Captain” Arthur Wybrow Baker took it upon himself to confront the stick fighters of Canboulay. With his army of “Bobbies,” Baker broke up bands and arrested members, receiving accolades from the press. Emboldened by his success, and a second ban in 1880, Baker attempted to stamp out Canboulay once and for all.
In 1881 he organized 150 Bobbies to wait in ambush for stick fighters, who they would disarm and arrest en masse. What he didn’t expect, was the stiff resistance. French and English speaking bands, often bitter foes, united to fight Baker and his men. All along the streets, using their batons, or bottles or rocks, stick men–and women–engaged in bloody clashes with the police. It was enough to make the colonial governor sue for peace. Based on an agreement between the magistrate and the stick fighters, the 1882 Canboulay proceeded smoothly.
But over the next few years, more violence erupted–between the stick fighters, and between the stick fighters and the police. New laws were passed and enforced, banning music, instruments and nearly all aspects of Canboulay from Carnival tradition. By the 1890s Carnival had been purged of Jamette, and in some ways purged of Canboulay.
Carnival in Frederick Street, Illustrated London News 1888
But the ritual never died out, not in spirit. If anything it simply transferred itself, adapting to the larger Carnival, many of its masquerades becoming classical Mas traditions. Canboulay inspired elements returned in the 1920s through 1930s, coinciding with working class and anti-colonial movements. While the flaming torches and overt symbols of emancipation may have faded away, the Jab, music and dance remained. The stick fighters went on to hold their own rituals in rural areas. In the barracks and backyards, their fierce competition would infect the kaiso, tamboo bamboo and later steel bands of Calypso. New bands like Tokyo and Invaders, inheritors of the kalenda tradition–this time beating pan–would evoke the old rivalries of Canboulay in the mid 20th century. The late Calypsonian Lord Blakie immortalized their sometimes violent feuds to verse in his song Steelband Clash, reminding all that Carnival has always skirted the boundaries of danger and chaos:
It was a bacchanal/ 1950s Carnival/Fight for so with Invaders and Tokyo/When the two bands clash/Mama Yo! If yuh see cutlass!/ Never me again/To jump in a steelband in Port of Spain.
Though the more “respectable” Dimanche Gras had come to replace the usual space occupied by Canboulay, the 1950s would bring in a more “controlled” version in the form of J’Ouvert. How close it resembles its origin remains a source of contention. J’Ouvert in Port-of-Spain, like Carnival in general, has increasingly become a consumer driven enterprise. Now tourists from across the world can pay to be part of large semi-orderly bands and adorn themselves in paint and mud in mimicry–as if the old traditions of the pre Emancipation elites relive themselves in a cycle. And many decry that this tamed version is a loss of not only history but cultural memory: more “banal” than bacchanal.
But that might be too simplistic. On the streets of Port-of-Spain you only have to move away from the larger “foreigner” bands to find J’Ouvert’s more raw magic. It’s there in oil-black dripping Jab Molassie, scandalous (almost offensive) costumes, even more scandalous whining, and inflammatory political rhetoric/symbolism. Beyond the capital city, you can find it in other places–Arima, Chaguanas and elsewhere, whose raucous Afro-Indian cultural mashups are more reminiscent of the older traditions. And every year in a recently invented tradition, the Canboulay Riots of 1881 are reenacted on early J’Ouvert morning in a script featuring stick fighters, drummers and even Captain Baker and his Bobbies.
And J’Ouvert traditions are certainly not limited to Trinidad. Throughout the Eastern Caribbean, similar traditions (even if called by different names) bear striking similarities. Ask any Grenadian, and they will tell you with pride that Trinidad’s J’Ouvert holds nothing to their own Jab traditions–as Tallpree makes it clear. In places like Toronto and Brooklyn, J’Ouvert has been re-invented again by a Pan-Caribbean milieu, made up of traditions from various homelands and recently created ones born in the diaspora. What nearly all these various customs have in common however, is a shared history of slavery, emancipation and resistance.
Caribbean rhetorician Kevin Adonis Browne in his work Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture and the Anglophone Caribbean, talks of his encounter with a woman during Carnival in Crown Heights Brooklyn, whose hip moving dance, whose hybrid dress of the modern and the traditional past is a performance in of itself. As he puts it, she says with a smile, without ever speaking, “Watch me, nah!” In her actions he sees a “conscious movement,” one that speaks of the possibilities of freedom, the struggles of freedom and freedom curtailed. He states: “In short, her dance is a dance in protest to the legacy of emancipation. Canboulay. Cannes Brûlées. The burning cane. She stands to face it, smiling.” It is a performance of freedom both desired and denied that has played itself out through decades, through the centuries. And in its own way, it is defiant, fantastic, dangerous and–above all perhaps–magical all at once.
Because how else to explain something that managed to survive after all this time? After repeated attempts to suppress it–from authorities in 1880s Port-of-Spain to police in Crown Heights, Brooklyn? Yet every year it shows up, seemingly born out of nowhere, transforming everyday people into characters out of myth, casting a type of spell with its music, and seeming almost supernatural. During J’Ouvert, the mundane world is transformed, some barrier that separates us from the fantastic, from the sane, from the logical is weakened, and we’re all swept up into its wonderful, dangerous embrace. Freedom denied becomes freedom taken, if only for a brief moment. That’s J’Ouvert. And how else can you explain it, than magic?
Kevin Adonis Browne, Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and The Anglophone Caribbean (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013)
Richard Burton, Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the Caribbean (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997)
John Cowley, Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool, Rituals of Power & Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad & Tobago: 1763-1962 (Trinidad and Tobago, 2012)