Trinidad Carnival - The Greatest Show on Earth

Jouvert

At 2 a.m. in Trinidad & Tobago, West Indies, the frenzy each year, the greatest show on earth is born.  During Carnival Monday morning and in the early hours, the first revelers hit the streets - jumping, dancing, shouting - abetted, it must be admitted, by the fine local rum, but fueled more by the exhilaration of the occasion.  This early "Mas", known as "J'Ouvert", (a contraction of the French "jour ouvert", or "day open"), is for the true die-hard player. It's a ritual enacted to the accompaniment of mud, oil, pitchforks and pointed tails! An elemental celebration of the darker side of human life. Hieronymous Bosch would have felt at home playing J'Ouvert. .

Pronounced "Jouvay", this costumed street dance officially launches most islands' Carnival at daybreak. On some islands, it precedes Mardi Gras or main event.  On other islands, it begins the big day itself.

Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by French settlers in 1783, a time of slavery.[1] Banned from the masquerade balls of the French, the slaves would stage their own mini-carnivals in their backyards - using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating and sometimes mocking their masters' behavior at the masquerade balls.[2]

The origins of street parties associated with J'ouvert coincide with the emancipation from slavery in 1838.[3] Emancipation provided Africans with the opportunity, to not only participate in Carnival, but to embrace it as an expression of their new found freedom. Some theorize that some J'ouvert traditions are carried forward in remembrance of civil disturbances in Port of Spain, Trinidad, when the people smeared themselves with oil or paint to avoid being recognized.

The traditions of J'ouvert vary widely throughout the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, a part of the tradition involves smearing paint, mud or oil on the bodies of participants known as "Jab Jabs". On the islands of Dominica, Saint Lucia, Guadalupe, Saint Martin and Haiti, participants celebrate by blowing flutes and conch shells or by beating Goat skinned drums, irons or bamboo sticks while singing folk songs.

J'ouvert is inseparable from Carnival and has had many influences. The Spanish and English colonial powers, French planters, African slaves, Indian indentured servants and the many other ethnic groups have all left an indelible mark on J'ouvert.

Buy Trinidad Jouvert books

Bacchanal: The Carnival Culture of Trinidad Pan Woman: Steelbands of Trinidad & Tobago The Rough Guide Trinidad and Tobago
Bacchanal: The Carnival Culture of Trinidad Pan Woman: Steelbands of Trinidad & Tobago The Rough Guide Trinidad and Tobago

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Sources

  1. "The French and Other Catholics" - National Library and Information System Authority
  2. "History of Carnival" - All Ah We
  3. 'Mama Dis is Mas': A Historical Overview of the Trinidad Carnival, 1783 1900" - National Library and Information System Authority
  4. "Carnival" - The Consulate General for the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago