Hold Back the Dawn

Written by Pat Ganase, photography by Stephen Broadbridge and Alex Smailes

Nothing—not pan, soca, kings, queens, or kiddies—in the eventful weeks of January leading up to this year’s Carnival prepares you for jouvert. By day, you are awestruck by the children parading in fantastical costumes on the sunlit streets of Port of Spain, By night, enraptured by the melodies of pan, or swallowed up in the heaving, vibrating, gyrating energy of the fetes. On the final weekend, as suddenly as the tropical day turns into night, you are thrust to the brink of an organised madness.

It is Carnival Sunday night, after the big stage show called Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), the streets throng with expectant humankind, feeling their way forward in the pitch dark known as “fo’e day morning.” The first scintillating notes of a tenor pan, or the blast from an invisible truck pierces the impenetrable blackness. Bodies press forward and the streets are suddenly filled, as if in the grip of some pied piper’s inaudible song.

“Ten thousand strong” feel this relentless surge towards some ineffable dawning.

This is jouvert 2009.

It begins around 2 am on February 23, Carnival Monday, and moves effortlessly as the 3 Canal song “Down de road.”

If Carnival is a spectacle that dazzles visually, and blows the mind with lyrics and music, jouvert beats the belly like a drum, vibrating to the tempo of the feet. You start in the dark and emerge in the daylight.

It is thought that the jouvert tradition has roots somewhere in the French folklore of the islands. A soucouyant— witch-woman who sheds her skin to fly through the night in a ball of fire to suck the blood of her victims—returns just before daybreak to find that her skin has been salted. The sun must not find her out of her skin. In pain and distress, she screams “Jou ouve? Jou paka ouve…” (Day coming? Day can’t come.) Hold back the dawn!

For the last 150 years, the denizens of jouvert have been devils, diablesses, demons, imps, dragons, monsters and beasts. Part of the early-morning tradition is also the “ol’ mas” competition in which masqueraders depict in costume and mime some satirical situation or ridicule the pillars of society. A man with a lab coat and stethoscope behind a big branch just broken off some unwitting tree—bush playing doctor. Bad puns can be funny in jouvert.

Just over ten years ago, the rapso group 3 Canal (named for the trademark of sharp cutlasses) created their own jouvert band, around a signature song “Blue.” The jouvert revellers were covered in “maljo” blue paint, the colour against the evil eye. In that year, they were “Ten thousand blue devils coming down…
You can’t play ol’ mas and fraid to get dutty, boy!”

Their “Down de Road” rendition captures the spirit of the event:

“Is jouvert morning?Is a magic morning?Is time to start de bacchanal…?“We going down de road?Ten thousand strong?Is jouvert morning…”
Jouvert In Trinidad Carnival

Trinidad Carnival 2009 begins just after New Year’s.

By this time, the season’s new calypsoes can be heard non stop on the radio stations and in the panyards.

The official Carnival days are February 23 and 24, dictated by the lunar calendar that puts Easter on March 23 and Ash Wednesday on February 25.

Come for the climax events in the week before Ash Wednesday, including the Panorama competitions to pick the best-playing steelbands; the calypso competitions to choose the Monarch; the children’s competitions; the Kings and Queens of Carnival; the parades of traditional mas, and the big “jump up” parties called fetes. This means getting to Trinidad some time in the week of February 16•

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