Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Meaning of J'ouvert

J'ouvert (also spelled Juvé or Juve)
Is a large street party during Carnival in the eastern Caribbean region. J'ouvert is a contraction of the French jour ouvert, or day open (morning). J'ouvert is celebrated on many islands, including Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

J'ouvert (pronounced 'joovay' locally) involves calypso/soca bands and their followers dancing in the capital cities of the various islands. The festival starts well before dawn and peaks a few hours after sunrise. Part of the tradition involves smearing paint, mud, or oil on the participants known as Jab Jabs. This is done in remembrance of a civil disturbance in Port of Spain, Trinidad, when the people smeared themselves with oil to avoid being recognized.

J'ouvert is also a feature of New York City's Labor Day Parade held in Brooklyn Toronto's Caribana and Notting Hill Carnival in London

The most influential single factor on the culture of Trinidad and Tobago is Carnival.
Carnival was brought to Trinidad by French settlers in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Originally the celebration was confined to the elite, but it was imitated and adapted by their slaves and, after the abolition of slavery in 1834 the practice spread into the free population.

The Canboulay Riots of 1881 were a turning point in the evolution of Trinidad Carnival.
Carnival was originally confined to the upper classes, who rode the streets in floats, or watched from the upper storey of residences and businesses.

The night was given over to the lower classes. The first few hours of Carnival Monday morning, from about 4 a.m. until sunrise, was known as J’Ouvert (a contraction of jour ouvert). Costumed and masked by the darkness, J’Ouvert allowed the wealthy to mix with the poor in relative anonymity.

Monday night (night ‘mas) had a similar, but lesser function. Mas, the daytime of Carnival Monday and Tuesday are dominated by costumed masqueraders.

Until World War II most of these masqueraders portrayed traditional characters including the Midnight Robber, Police and Thief, Wild Indian, Bat, Jab Molassie, Jab Jab, Red Devil, Blue Devil, and Dame Lorraine. The wartime presence of American soldiers (and war movies) added the Sailor Mas’.

In the postwar period the individuals gave way to organised bands, which today can include thousands of masqueraders. Peter Minshall is often considered the greatest mas’ designer.
J'ouvert or Jouvay is at the heart of Trinidad carnival, and is also celebrated in other Eastern Caribbean islands. The name J'ouvert originates from the French jour ouvert, meaning day break or morning, and signals the start of the bacchanalia that is Carnival.

Jouvert is highly traditional and full of symbols culture and heritage. It is steeped in tradition and playing mud mas involves participants known as Jab Jabs. covering themselves – from head to toe - and others in paint, chocolate, mud, white powder or anything for that matter.
It is Jouvert custom that no one is clean, and a common site to see a newcomer being hugged by a muddy revelers.

This traditional part of Carnival starts at around 2 in the morning and finishing after sunrise. Calypso and soca music are the dominating sounds of Jouvert in Trinidad the mass of revellers takes the street party winning and chipping their way to the savannah in Port of Spain in the early hours of Lundi Gras, before the daytime carnival parades.

The roots of Jouvert in Trinidad go back 200 years, with the arrival of French plantation owners. The French never colonised Trinidad, however elements of their culture remained. J’Ouvert evolved from the Canboulay festivals in the 1800’s, which were night time celebrations where the landowners dressed up and imitated the negres jardins (garden slaves). Following emancipation the newly freed slaves took over canboulay, now imitating their former masters imitating them.

Canboulay revellers, who carried lighted cane torches, were seen as a potential risk by the authorities, and the tension mounted leading to the Canboulay riots. It was eventually banned, and then was re established as Jouvert.

The spectacular costumes represent characters and events from the history and folklore. Moko Jumbie Bats, Bookmen, Baby dolls, jab molassie, devil mas are all traditional Carnival characters that capture the elements of the past, and continue to tell the story.

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