The Dimanche Gras calypso contest the previous evening had kept us out late, and we were sleeping soundly in the cool, pre-dawn darkness when the first sounds jolted us awake. Even the chorus of roosters was startled into silence. Through the window came the rhythmic sound of a large fast-moving crowd, chanting. The grandchildren of our landlady next door, who had arrived the evening before full of chattering anticipation, tumbled out of bed and crowded to the window over- looking the street below.
This was J’Ouvert morning, the official start of Carnival in Grenada. Two days of revelry and celebration, the culmination of months of planning, weeks of anticipation, and loud nights of calypso, soca and reggae.
The tableau passing quickly below was like a Christmas scene from Hades, starring an army of devils. The bodies of the jab-jab dancers, coated with oil, glistened darkly in the light of their smoking torches; many wore devil’s helmets adorned with cows’ horns.
The band of jab-jabs rapidly disappeared over the hill that led to the downtown area and the Market Square. We dressed quickly and followed them into the dimness of early dawn.
From the brow of the hill, we could see thousands of people packed into the square below us. The eerie pre-dawn light, the street lights, the smoke and flames of the torches, the ear-splitting DJ music mixed with a couple of massive steel bands that had been mounted on carts to move through the crowd, all helped to conjure up a scene of hellish revelry. The jab-jab bands had disintegrated into individual feats of dancing and bacchanal displays.
When we joined the crowd, our nervousness soon vanished; rather than a scene from hell it was a friendly, boisterous celebration — not the place for tourist finery, maybe, but certainly a way to celebrate with Grenadians and to warm to their “good mornin, happy J’Ouvert” greetings.
By 8:30, the streets, except for a few stragglers, were quiet. Most people had gone home for breakfast, to nurse a sore head, or to catch up on a little sleep before the big event later in the day — the parade and judging of the “Pretty Mas” bands.
Carnival is a regular homecoming week for Grenadians from all over the world. It was once a pre-Lenten folk pageant filled with costumes, dancing and horseplay, that ended, according to one Grenadian sage, “no later than sharp at midnight of Shrove Tuesday — if not, if God didn’t get you, your mother would!”
Carnival has its own lexicon, reflecting its French/Creole roots. J’Ouvert or jour ouvert translates as morning is open, jab is a corruption of diable or devil, mas stands for masque or masquerade. A band is simply an organised group, wining is a dance movement to demonstrate physical suppleness, often in a sexually suggestive routine. Canboulay is derived from cannes brulèes, burnt (sugar) cane, and was originally a forced slave march to put out cane fires: eventually the slaves turned this into a satirical parade of their own.
So it’s not too hard to imagine the roots of the jab molassi — the molasses devil, or the black oil and mud make-up of the modern jab-jab bands. It has the same satisfying shocking effect on the more “proper” members of the community today as it did in earlier times.
Carnival celebrations can be traced back into antiquity, even to Roman times. The very word Carnival probably comes from Latin — carne vale, farewell to the flesh. But the roots of Caribbean Carnival, especially in Grenada, sprang from the colonial French/slave society of Trinidad.
After the colonial see-saw wars and diplomatic horse-trading between England and France in the 18th century, England was finally granted control over Grenada, and many French colonists settled in Trinidad. Strong ties grew up between the two islands, and through the years there has been a significant cultural flow in both directions. Carnival traditions have been adopted and adapted to fit the local culture in many Caribbean islands. Even the drum dances of the Garifuna people of Belize came back to me as I watched some of Grenada’s more traditional mas bands.
In Grenada, the tradition of bands with distinctive folk themes was dying out by the 1930s, and many of the 18th- and 19th-century traditions were being forgotten. Then in 1974 Carnival was held in May because of conflict with Independence Day celebrations. Nellie Payne, former librarian at the University of the West Indies’ Marryshow House, in her paper Grenada Mas 1928-1988, says: “The changing of the date was traumatic, and Carnival was a faint shadow of itself. A new concept had to be encouraged. No ashes, no forgiveness of sins, no absolution on Ash Wednesday? The very word Carnival had lost its meaning!”
For several years the festival sought a new format. At the same time, Grenada needed a tourist attraction for the summer season in August. In 1984 this led to a new date for the festival. August is Carnival time in Grenada now; the whole country puts aside mundane things like work and sleep: “We goin’ jammin!'”
So there is the Dimanche Gras show on the night before J’Ouvert, a calypso contest, a King and Queen of the Carnival pageant, a children’s parade, even church parades. There are street jams (dances), and always, always, calypso and soca music loud enough to deafen the devil himself. The jab-jab bands have taken on a whole new configuration; once they were mainly an individual performance, but the modern jab-jab bands have absorbed several of the older traditions. The pretty mas bands have also changed and have an increasingly important role in the modern Carnival. Altogether it is a time for family, friendships, horseplay, hangovers and pageantry.
We returned from Market Square with our share of minor smudges and a feeling of camaraderie, had a shower and snooze, and were off to Queen’s Park, the St George’s sports stadium with an outdoor ceremonial stage, to watch the pretty mas bands.
There were dozens of them, the masqueraders ranging from pre-schoolers to great-grandparents. Each band acted out a chosen theme through costumes and dance. These themes ranged from a lascivious fantasy to depictions of island foods. The participants had spent months getting ready for this event, involving whole communities in the process of making costumes. As each band appeared it was greeted with applause from the packed stands. There were hundreds of costumed characters: huge gossamer butterflies, stately kings and princesses, and a startling, giant, crimson loup garou , a human vampire. Tuesday was largely given over to a super parade of all the bands along the Carenage, the St George’s waterfront.
The clock on the church tower struck twelve midnight. The DJs’ huge music boxes gradually subsided into silence; the sound of soft voices and the footsteps of people making their way home drifted in through the window. A couple of dogs started their nightly discussion about each other’s parentage, and a lone rooster took the solo lead in the nightly chicken chorus, immediately joined by the full choir from backyards all across this amphitheatre that is the city of St. George’s.
Carnival was over for another year.