You don’t necessarily discover something new every day, but if you’re lucky, mebbe very week? Month? As is my wont, I was reading back issues of the New York Times and came upon a supplement titled “Carnival In Winter.” This looked at the history of Carnival celebrations in Trinidad, London and Brooklyn. I assume most of y’all have heard about New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and Brazil’s Carnivale but possibly not these other celebrations unless you live in/near the communities that host them. Lemme tell ya, investigating the many lovely, wild, primal traditions of Afro-Catholicism makes for a very deep, very entertaining and enlightening dive down a religio-cultural worm hole.
ANYHOO… what especially caught my eye were the passing references to the “J’ouvert” tradition, a part of Carnival celebrations that begins with a pre-dawn bacchanal celebrated in oil, paint, mud and the immersion in various dark, chaotic archetypes. Some commentators describe the experience as dancing through the darker side of human experience, from dark into the light. There are parallels with New Orleans’ “Black Indian” tradition of “masking” where participants begin parading at dawn on Mardi Gras Day, personating war parties in the roles of Big Chief, Flag Boy, Spy Boy, Wild Man and followers – chanting (among other things) “Get out the way!”
the Discover Trinidad website says:
“J’Ouvert is mud mas’, dirty mas’, and still boasts several of the traditional Carnival characters: jab jabs, blue devils, bats, midnight robbers, Dame Lorraines. It starts officially at about 4am Monday morning (the official time changes fairly regularly), with scores of people chipping through the streets of the country’s cities, covered in paint, grease and mud. Locals and visitors from all walks of life lose themselves in the anonymity offered by costumes of oil, mud, clay, body paint and even chocolate. Vigorous gyrations to pumping music and “rhythm sections” (music bands made up only of percussion instruments) keep any early morning chill at bay.
“J’Ouvert is not the modern ‘pretty mas’ that commands the cameras on Carnival Tuesday. In the dim light of dawn no one is paying attention to the details, but the energy of the thousands who take to the streets is irresistible.
“’Ole mas’, an essential part of J’Ouvert, is street theatre. Ole mas competitions pit rival masqueraders – dressed in their own or borrowed old clothes, often incongruously composed and cryptically elaborated by a satirical placard (usually of something socially or politically topical) – against each other for the prize. Puns are a mainstay for the placards and costumes. These cheeky and clever costumes and characters often reflect public sentiment on current affairs, and also reflect Trinidadian’s playful creativity (some of the other islands actually refer to us as ‘Trickidadians’).
“Bands of traditional mas characters like dames lorraines, devils, midnight robbers and Indians join the melée. This is the raw, elemental, sometimes even confrontational belly of Carnival that takes over in the wee hours before daybreak, and is not for the prissy or the squeamish.”
Read the whole article (ya gotta scroll down to the section on J’ouvert:
And here’re some videos of the celebrations: