In Trinidad, Carnival itself begins in darkness. Before dawn on Carnival Monday morning, the bacchanal begins with J'Ouvert. When you see the feathers and glitter in the sunshine on Carnival Tuesday, that's pretty mas. J'Ouvert is dirty mas. It's the much needed balance--the foil to the manicured opulence. It's as necessary as night is to day. J’Ouvert is the time to free up, let loose and get real dirty. People dance down the road to soca music booming from trucks, drinking liberally from moving bars and wining without restraint. Depending on who you roll with, you'll get smeared with paint, powder, mud, oil--even chocolate.
It's not just a party, though. J'Ouvert emerged in Afro-Trinidadian society after the emancipation from slavery in 1838. It defied and mocked the Carnival festivities of the oppressive white aristocracy and former slave owners, many of whom were French. (The word "J'Ouvert" comes from the French "jour ouvert," meaning daybreak.) J'Ouvert offered freedom to express and transgress; to shed your skin and put on a new one. Soca star Kes puts it like this: "People use that time to jump out themselves and be somebody else, or be what they always wanted to be. Sometimes [it's] political, sometimes controversial."
Since the early days, J’Ouvert has also been part street theater, a setting for political satire and humor in costume. It has many traditional characters: the speech-giving Midnight Robber, horned jab jab devils covered in black oil and chains, stilt-walking moko jumbies, comically voluptuous Dame Lorraines, or the blue devils. National Carnival Commission chairman Colin Lucas says that when he was young, he "was just terribly afraid of J'Ouvert and the blue devils. Blue devils painted their entire bodies blue and there was a red dye that they would put in their mouths that made it look like they were sucking blood. And they had these forks and they would taunt you and say uhhh, look the devil, paint the devil…” These creatures of the night, the manifestations of the darker shades of human emotion, need to come out sometime. They provoke and inspire and transform.
For most revelers these days, J'Ouvert is less about the masquerade tradition and more about the party. Older heads may tell you J’Ouvert has gotten too commercialized and lost some of its life-giving chaos, but for a lot of people, J’Ouvert is still the peak of Carnival. I was graciously hosted by Dirty Dozen, a typical paint and powder J'Ouvert band that includes drinks, breakfast and security in their ticket fee. Some bands keep the traditional J'Ouvert soundtrack of steelpan, drums and beaten iron alive, but many, including Dirty Dozen, just play the same soca music you hear all the time. There are some songs built for J’Ouvert, though. They’ve got skimpier, dirtier beats, heavy on bass and drums. For some reason, St. Lucian soca artists like Motto, Freezy, Mighty and Subance were fueling the J'Ouvert jams this year, with their signature style. Serious wining music. Check out the rest of these photos from J'Ouvert and listen to the J'Ouvert jams mixed in.
Too soon, the sun rises and Trinidad stumbles out of the dirty darkness into Carnival Monday. Bodies are washed, clothes are changed and maybe some sleep is had. People are reborn and take once again to the road for two days of pretty mas, parading through the streets from dawn to night.