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Clash Of Lords / February 3, 2019

After-Mas-Curtisjouvay-300Someone 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.

stickfightingThe 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.

Blue DevilsJ’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