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J’Ouvert gone feminine

Published: 
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I first played J’Ouvert in 1958. I remember being in the middle of a steelband on Prince Street with my late Uncle George and his friends as the sun came up over the Laventille hills, singing, “De doctah say, to pay as you earn, but the Sparrow say, you paying to learn.” Sun coming up over the Laventille hills for J’Ouvert became a sort of magic moment in the following years. It took about two hours for a slow moving steelband, usually Invaders or Starlift, to move from the Oval, down Tragarete into Green Corner, where the darkness melted into bright light coming up over Laventille and the sense of belonging, of oneness, of a ferocious gaiety and wanting to hug up every Trinidadian overwhelmed you. That sense of freeness and oneness is what characterised J’Ouvert. It began with the first step down from the pavement onto the road in the cool, dark hours of early morning. From someone accustomed to obey the law and walk only on the pavement, look right, look left and look right again before crossing, with that movement you abandoned the clothing of decorum and took over the road. For the next six hours the road was your playground, your bathroom and sometimes your bed. The genius, Kitchener, said it all, “The road make to walk on Carnival day.”

The planning for J’Ouvert, if it can be called planning, began sometime on Carnival Sunday night, usually as I watched Dimanche Gras with a set of friends with glasses in their hands in the gallery or the pantry of the house where I was born. There would be a constant in and out of characters from around Corbeau Town that you saw once a year. Out of the fatigue and old talk would come an idea and a cardboard placard would be made and some piece of corresponding clothes or hat or mask found somewhere and that would be your “costume” for J’Ouvert. Or you could simply drink and laugh, get a little sleep, wake up at three, sober up a bit with some bitter tasting coffee (adding a little rum made the transition easier) and move out into the street en masse, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to wake up Mrs Ferreira next door. By the time we reached the Dairies, the first slug of raw rum, measured with exactitude into the cap, had gone down with a shudder but it was a defence against the cool breeze blowing down from Chancellor.

As you turned into Tragarete Road, suddenly it was there, crowds of merry people jostling amicably on the pavement, stopping to “fire one,” hug up, vendors selling oranges or beers or coconuts, and not far off you would hear the sweet sound of pan coming down the road and, if you were lucky, the quiet “shuff shuff” of hundreds of feet moving as one to the bass drums. As the band came nearer, we would wait, tensed up for it to pass and then take that first step down into the back of the band. By the time we reached Green Corner, the sun would be up, shirts would be off, hands would be raised, “Glory be to J’Ouvert! We free!” It is what J’Ouvert is supposed to mean. Freedom! Not freeness or freeupness. Freedom. To behave, within reason, how we want, without interfering with others.  Who want to chip, chip. Who want to ramajay, ramajay. Who want to watch on, watch on. To mock pomposity. To ridicule the ridiculous. To laugh or cause others to laugh at the smallness and meanness of the “big boys,” once white, now dark-skinned. Or to simply enjoy yourself, “leggo,” roll in the gutter, play priest or politician.
J’Ouvert was never meant to be organised or controlled. J’Ouvert was spontaneous and chaotic and out of that bubbling maelstrom of emotion occasionally came shifting glimpses of truth about us that made spectators nod their head in approval. J’Ouvert was not meant to be costumed bands of masqueraders, “getting in their section” to parade on stage. J’Ouvert was not DJs. J’Ouvert was not delicate women, toned down to plastic perfection.

J’Ouvert was disorganisation. J’Ouvert was brute steel and steelband power. J’Ouvert was male, nasty and dirty, cynical and biting, not this soft, pampered, middle-class, feminine thing it has become.
There were always women in J’Ouvert and some of them out-shone the men in taking over the road but they were not the main attraction they are today, where you just have not lived, my dear, if you have not played “a mud marse” in a large band with lots of security, nice drinks, a portable WC and a screaming DJ. How the spirits of the slaves who started J’Ouvert must be groaning to see the mockery their descendants are making of them. How the ghosts of the white plantation owners must be laughing to see the descendants of slaves and indentured servants trying to be like them when the entire spirit of J’Ouvert was about mocking them.