J’Ouvert, Drums, Dress, + Resistance

J’Ouvert, Drums, Dress, + Resistance August 29, 2017
J'Ouvert lecture with Dr. Dale Byam photo by Lilith Dorsey. All rights reserved.
J’Ouvert lecture with Dr. Dale Byam photo by Lilith Dorsey. All rights reserved.

Resistance can appear in many forms, and J’Ouvert is one of the most colorful. The celebration, which marks the start of Carnival, begins even before the sun rises. Ray Allen in his piece on J’Ouvert in Brooklyn Carnival writes ” Held in the predawn hours of Carnival Monday, [it] evolved from 19th century Canboulay festivals – nighttime celebrations where ex-slaves gathered to masquerade, sing, and dance in commemoration of their emancipation….Historically J’Ouvert’s demonic and satirical masquerading, coupled with dense percussion and steel pan music, manifest Carnival’s deepest challenge to order and authority. ”

While this isn’t a Voodoo rite, it is a African based ritual that has been in play for a long time. The celebration has been around for decades if not centuries. It takes places in Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, St. Thomas, Grenada, Boston, Brooklyn, and elsewhere. In an article in The Guardian in Trinidad about last year’s carnival they talk about the costumes

“The all-female section, Nefertiti, wearing kalasiris over their bikinis and shorts complemented with gold head pieces, depicted the style of the ancient Egyptian queen. This was followed by the black and gold-clad revellers of the Mastaba Chamber section which represented the tomb of Egypt’s royalty. The third section, Naqada, which translated means gold, represented a town on the west bank of the river Nile in the Egyptian governorate of Qena. Jama Production’s In D Brew had a band filled with well-designed witches. Before the judges, their chief witch mixed her powerful brew to get rid of the evil spirits upon the earth. ”

This phenomenon is something you have to see for yourself but for now you can hear a little taste. Here is a song about it from Roaring Lion, a Trinidadian band from the 1930’s.

Fortunately the celebrations still continue today. Recently the Brooklyn Public library hosted a day of J’Ouvert lectures and performances. Attendees were treated to the “History of Ole Mas traditions” with Dr. Dale Byam and Roland Guy ( who has been masquerading as Dame Lorraine since age 2,) and the “History of Steel Pan Traditions” by Dr. Ray Allen, with an in depth demonstration by Garvin Blake. Then there were amazing performances : The Engine Room with Kutters Rhythm Section; Legend Stars Steel Band; Haitian Rara with La Troupe Zetwal; Masquerade with Utopia Pan Soul and Oildowners; Calypso with Roland Guy; and Something Positive, Inc.


Satire As Resistance

There is a long tradition of Satire as resistance in Africa and throughout the Diaspora (no, it didn’t start with Tina Fey.) Those familiar with the Egungun masquerade in Africa will see parallels here. In this particular predawn event it manifests as masquerade and ritual theatre. There are some interesting characters in this narrative- devils, french women with big bottoms and more. These remind us of a time when protests were just as necessary, but not as brightly lit.

Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert Is Almost Here

This year the City of New York is partnering with Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams and the New York City Police Department for a safer J’Ouvert Parade. This year’s parade is permitted by NYPD and has an approved route. It starts at Grand Army Plaza, goes south on Flatbush Avenue, east on Empire Boulevard, south on Nostrand Avenue, ending at Midwood Street. Following tradition, the parade will start at approximately 6 a.m. on Monday, September 4, 2017

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