08/20/2006, St. Georges, Grenada
it’s black but you wake up to the pulsating sounds of “Block up de road” on speakers the size of fridges! Figures emerge from the dark hills drawn to the music. Approaching the road, you’re enveloped by throngs of red, black and green figures. Those that are already covered are helping each other into their “costumes”. Buckets of black oil are poured over heads. Now they are followers of Jab-Jab. They’re ready for the J’ouvert.
J’ouvert is the start of the 2-day street festivities of Carnival and it begins around 4:30 AM. At J’ouvert, people paint their entire bodies white, black, red, yellow, or green. Each colour is a separate Mas group and each group are led by their own DJ on a flatbed truck playing Soca music. We spoke to local Grenadian, Peter Donald, who mentioned that as a child, he remembers J’ouvert differently. There was a “red” character, known as the Jab-Jab with horns, a long tail, carrying a whip. The only music heard was the beating of the drum. For Peter, this scared him the most because he knew the Jab-Jab was coming. Children hid under their beds because they were afraid the Jab-Jab would take them away.
Carnival Characters The character, Jab-Jab comes out of a long tradition. Although Carnival has its Christian roots is has also incorporated other themes and is mainly about questioning society from a range of perspectives through the use of story-telling. We first learned about the Jab-Jab character when we arrived in St. George’s lagoon at the beginning of July. We heard a presentation by local historian and Sociologist, Jane Belfon who described some of Carnival’s traditional characters including Jab-Jab. He is a devil-like character who appears only at J’ouvert. Jane also explained the story-telling features of the different Mas Bands that parade the streets. Mas refers to an abbreviation of the French word Masquerade. J’ouvert is a blend of the French phrase Jour ouvert – open day or dawn.
From the website, Mascot 2000, here’s a little more background about a number of Carnival characters including the Jab-Jab. This character has its origins in the beginning of the 20th century – a devil-like character with a number of other nasty characters coming to tempt or tease Christian followers before Lent. From the website, the author writes,
“Somebody, once said to me that Jab Molassi (the Molasses Devil) came out of cannes brulees and was played in depiction of the worst thing that could happen on a cane estate: a person meeting his or her death by falling into a vat of boiling molasses. The molasses devil was the ghost of the cane estate.”
Mascot 2000 website.
Here is a description of the Jab-Jab character when it was first introduced in 1906. The introduction of this pivotal character marked the beginning of a change in the story-telling up to that point. The story changed from featuring the ghosts of the Cane Plantations – the old Jab Molassi character – to the more familiar devil-like character.
Jab Jab, a whip-cracking, mirrored mas, decorated with red and green satin skirts, mauve moir taffeta and orange stockings, is the father of the Dragon Band or Devil Band. This metamorphosis commenced in 1906, when Patrick Jones, prompted by a sacred picture illustrating the exorcising of the devil from a sick person, prompted the organising of the first Dragon mas. Khaki and slate were the colours chosen, cow horns and rope tails were used. They wore flexible wings that flapped. The band was comprised of about 70 or 80 men and women, who carried long forks. In 1909, Patrick Jones, brought out the “Red Devil band”.
Patrick Jones was a man who loved to read and was able to put his hands on an illustrated copy of Dante’s Inferno, and as a result was able to add a host of diabolical characters to his already charming retinue from hell.
Mascot 2000 website.
By 1911 the main features of the Dragon Band were already established and were to survive more or less intact for another fifty years. Fresh characters emerged, such as the devil as “Gentleman Jim”, who, together with his devil mask, wore a tail coat and carried a stick, behaving in a courtly manner with much bowing and kissing of hands. Various theories have been brought forward concerning the devil band. The theory is that the dragon band is an ambulatory (walking) depiction of Satan and his horde cast from heaven … he and his followers return to earth on the two days before the Lenten season commences in order to try (or tempt) the virtue of the faithful.
Bruce Procop is a major researcher on this topic.
A little bit of Carnival History
Carnival is an event that is mostly identified with the Caribbean and South America -particularly Trinidad and Brazil. It’s an event that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, however, today, it is celebrated all around the world. Its origins come from the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy around the 15th or 16th century. They started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival just before the start of Lent, a 40-day fasting period before Easter in the Christian religion. Because Catholics were not allowed to eat meat during Lent, they called the festival Carnevalewhich means “put away meat”. Over time, the festivals became incredibly popular and spread to France, Spain and Portugal, countries where the Catholic religion was largely followed. As French, Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered and then colonized the West Indies and other parts of the world, they brought their traditions, including Carnival with them. They also took part in the Slave Trade. So, African customs, such as the playing of drums, were also incorporated later on in festival activities.
Today, Trinidad hosts one of the world’s oldest and largest Carnivals with well over 1 million participants and more than twice the number of spectators. In 1785, Carnival was introduced to the country when the French occupied the country, after being forced out of Grenada. Its beginnings started on the large, wealthy sugar cane plantations, where grande Masquerade parties were hosted. Guests would arrive wearing wigs, masks, fancy costumes and dresses. It was a party where people danced into the early hours of morning. At the sametime, the plantation slaves held their own carnival away from their masters. They wore masks from their specific tribes and imitated and poked fun at their masters’ behaviour. This was one of the few opportunities they had to express themselves and share their cultural traditions. After 1838, when slavery was abolished, the freed slaves moved their carnival to the streets. Over time, they became more elaborate and more popular than the Plantation Masquerades.
While alot of the historical story-telling traditions have diminished in the Grenadian Carnival, under the pressure of pure commercialism, it is fantastic to see Grenadian/Canadian story-teller and author Ricardo Keens Douglas return home to create his own Mas Band. He is reviving the story-telling aspects of Carnival. This year, for his premiere entry, he recreated The Sailor Mas, an historic Mas that first appeared in the 1880’s in the Trinidad Carnival. The Mas pokes fun at sailors who came from America, France and England on naval ships in the West Indies at the beginning of the 19th century.
It was great to have a glimpse of THE most important cultural event of Grenada. Carnival’s history is rich and it continues to be a wonderful event for social commentary. It’s upifting to see that there are people who care about story-telling at a time when pure commercialism can take over. Good luck, story-tellers.