Drums thump in the predawn hours. People gambol down the street, most covered in dark motor oil or blue paint or mud; some wear chains, helmets, devil horns. Hips shake to the beat of soca music, and the rum is flowing among bystanders and participants alike. Parades are common during Carnival season, when people around the world let loose before the austere Christian period of Lent begins. But this is no ordinary Carnival event. This is J’ouvert.
The celebration’s origins are complex, but the tradition began in the Caribbean, likely in the early 1800s when French plantation owners brought Carnival to the islands. “Without Carnival, there is no J’ouvert,” says Dr. Patricia Saunders, an associate professor at the University of Miami specializing in Caribbean pop culture. From the French creole jour ouvert, or “daybreak,” J’ouvert typically took place in the early morning of the Monday before Lent began—and participation in it has always been an act of resistance.
While the upper class reveled in its fancy masquerades, slaves “played mas” (short for masquerading) by dressing up, using materials available to them to create costumes that parodied authority or recalled their own folklore. A cast of characters emerged, including the “Jab Jab,” a devil slathered in oil or molasses. “A lot of the characters you’ll hear about or see during J’ouvert—the blue devils, the Fancy Indians, the Midnight Robber—a lot of these characters have very West African roots,” Saunders says. But the chaos of Carnival was also prime time to mock and defy slave owners under the cover of revelry. In the 1830s, after the British empire abolished slavery in most of its colonies, including those in the Caribbean, the antiestablishment antics continued despite the colonists’ attempts to stop them. “J’ouvert is where you get the deepest sense of Carnival connected to slave resistance,” says Saunders. “Each island’s history is distinctly different and the festival reflects that resistance.”
Today, J’ouvert takes place in the early hours: on some islands starting around 2 a.m., on others closer to 4 or 5 a.m. Some people dress up as traditional characters like the devils, who might wear the aforementioned chains and horns, whereas others just wear clothes they don’t mind ruining—in the spirit of letting loose and indulging in colorful disguise, the goal of revelers is to get covered in paint, powder, oil, or mud (fellow J’ouvert celebrants will help). DJs blare soca music and participants parade the streets, some with their own drums in hand. To avoid competing with Trinidad and Tobago’s enormous Carnival and to highlight their own festivities, on many islands, Carnival (and, with it, J’ouvert) festivities are no longer aligned with the Lenten calendar.
Despite J’ouvert’s rich history, its traditional practices are less widespread than they once were. “Carnival is becoming a more commercial venture,” says Ann Peters, managing director of La Boucan Creative Center, an educational center dedicated to developing and preserving Grenadian creative arts and culture. “That can take away the cultural context of what J’ouvert means.” The loss of the traditional date, and alterations of characters and music may be an organic and inevitable part of the holiday’s evolution as new generations get involved.
It was this trend that inspired St. Kitts–born photographer Wayne Lawrence, who noticed the customs he’d grown up with were disappearing. “Once I realized that on a few of the other islands the traditions were still strong, I decided to try and preserve that,” Lawrence says. Since 2014 he has traveled among Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts, Grenada, and Anguilla during their J’ouvert celebrations for his photo series Black Blood, so named for the African lives lost during the transatlantic slave trade. The images here, taken on Grenada, capture the rawness and creativity that Lawrence most appreciates about the holiday. “J’ouvert is the opposite of the big shiny parade,” he says. “There’s more individuality and creativity in the way people present themselves. I get to show people empowered by their culture.”
If You Go
Each island celebrating J’ouvert reflects its unique history and culture, so the event is a little different everywhere. Visitors are welcome to watch or take part (just be ready to get dirty!). J’ouvert “bands” (organized groups that may be competing for prizes, if the event is judged) often sell tickets, and some local travel companies create packages that include participation in a J’ouvert band. For information on how to take part in the holiday, check the tourism board website for your destination and reach out to them directly if you have any questions.
Select J’ouvert Dates in the Caribbean
Trinidad & Tobago: February 24, 2020
Dominica: February 24, 2020
St. Vincent and the Grenadines: July 6, 2020, as part of Vincy Mas carnival
Barbados: July 31, 2020, as part of Crop Over
Anguilla: August 3, 2020
Grenada: August 10, 2020, as part of Spicemas carnival
St. Kitts and Nevis: December 26, 2020, as part of Sugar Mas carnival
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