Carnival (Carriacou)

Carnaval was first introduced to the Caribbean in the 1700’s by the French bourgeoisie. It was then a festival witha series of masquerade balls with elaborate, expensive costumes, house and street parades signifying the start of lent. In Carriacou carnival is officially celebrated in the week preceding Ash Wednesday. The former slaves parodied these festivities by covering themselves in ashes and oil and their orchestras consisted of conch shells for brass and biscuit tins for drums.

  We were ready and primed for the much anticipated and promoted Carriacou Carnival, famous all over the Windward Islands for its authenticity and fervour. This is not Rio, New Orleans or Cologne, it’s only a small island at the bottom of the Caribbean. The week-long super-party officially starts on the Thursday of the preceding week with the Queen Show but in reality it begins weeks earlier with several village road shows all over the island; meaning all night street parties with massive boom-boxes, hectolitres of beer and rum fuelled revellers. On the days leading up to the epic weekend, hundreds of partiers invade this small island. Many come from the mainland – Grenada – or other nearby Islands including Trinidad and St. Vincent and they are referred to with a disparaging sneer as foreigners, as opposed to us tourists and snowbirds who are more or less welcome here since we bring money and stay a while. Also, a lot of ex-pats from England, the US and Canada, make the long trek to this tranquil Island for the festivities, turning it into a party mayhem haven. The daily ferry from Grenada was mobbed and overloaded with standing room only, with many of the beer swilling passengers hanging over the railings in the rough seas. 

            The first official event is the crowning of the Carnival Queen on Thursday night. We arrived early at 9PM and got prime seats for the well run and entertaining program. Six young women showed off their sequined, feathered and glittery costumes, then each contestant performed a short drama or a musical number and then they displayed their ball gowns and answered a short quiz. Five local judges picked the winner at about 3AM in front of a jubilant and festive crowd consisting mostly of local women done up like New Year’s Eve, in stiletto heels and showing off their bling and super fun hair, braided, coloured, woven or piled high. The six girls representing their parishes, displayed a surprising amount of moxy and confidence with their ribald social commentary one-act-plays and songs, ranging from incest to their African heritage to the environment. There were only a handful of us white people in attendance but we didn’t at all feel out of place or uncomfortable. In fact, we were welcome to witness the local young women showing off their traditions and talents with pride. 

            Friday night was the Socca Monarch contest. We skipped this event, which started after 10PM and went on past 2AM and then spilled into the streets with incredibly loud and bombastic rhythms with hundreds of inebriated people dancing and partying while flat-bed trucks loaded with stacks of speakers, a generator and a screaming DJ, cranking out Caribbean Jab-rap and boom-boom at full blast, cruised up and down main street. At 6AM, as on every morning, of this week, the local waste disposal truck and crew swept through the town, removing the mountains of garbage and empty beer bottles left behind.

            On Saturday, makeshift booths built with palettes and plywood, and furnished with BBq’s, large coolers filled with ice were popping up wherever there was a space.  Tables laden with glitzy bling, T-shirts and Rasta caps lined the sidewalks, while in front of the bank, a DJ was laying his groovy tracks at full Harley Davidson volume. The mood was festive and when the ferry unloaded another 300 partiers, the stage was set for a night of unrestricted party-mayhem, called euphemistically the Jab-Convention.

            Our gang opted to seek refuge at the Mermaid Hotel, which featured a proper band fronted by a sultry lounge singer, playing to a crowd of mostly ex-pats living in Flatbush, New York. We were all mesmerized by the talented singer’s soulful rendition of ‘Redemption Songs’, Marley’s signature tune.

            The Calypso Monarch competition got under way on Sunday around 10PM and brought 11 local talents onto the stage performing social comment stories and rhythmic calypso songs. Suddenly a fierce downpour drove everybody under cover but the singer did not miss a beat and within a couple of minutes we were all back on the tarmac with our chairs. The last singer danced off the stage around 2AM and we sneaked home for a few hours. 

Monday morning at 5AM we were back out on the street waiting for the legendary J’ouvert -morning parade of oiled, horned and chained slave impersonators who finally showed up around 8AM and proceeded to grind and dance down main street. The scantily clad bodies donning horned helmets signifying the devil – the jab-jab – and were covered head to toe in black greasy motor oil or paint. Soon the main street was choked with hundreds of hung over and drunken revellers, many painted, or covered in black motor oil, gyrating and stumbling around the 20’ wide and 12’ high wall of black speakers which reverberated with continuous bass driven noise at ear shattering rocket launch levels while another boom-boom-monster-truck was leading a parade of black and greasy jab-jabbers, dancing and jiving along the narrow main thoroughfare in Hillsborough. Sleep of course was impossible. 

Here is a little history as compiled by David Lawrence: The word Jab was derived from the French word ‘Diable’, so a Jab-Jabber is playing the devil. Jab is also a satirical representation of the evil inflicted by the white colonialist on the slaves. To this day they are outfitted with goat horns, thick chains, and covered in black motor oil to tell the story of the day. In the old days these bizzare characters of J’ouvert would perform their ghoulish acts to scare young children, the uninitiated or the squeamish. Today they attract the tourists and scare the locals and they are covered in black motor oil and paint, adorned in chains and horned helmets. 

Rivers of garbage, mostly empty and broken bottles filled the gutters and the side walks once again. By noon, dozens of the oil covered partiers were on the beach, washing themselves and each other with sand and water and leaving the beach littered with oil-soaked rags and discarded clothes. This was not a good day to swim.

            “This is not what it used to be like, even a few years ago,’ Sybil, a resident of Hillsborough all her life, said to me, shaking her head ruefully. ‘There used to be a properly organized parade, more like a joyful walk by the jab-jab, led by steel drummers and brass bands,” not like this out-of-control mob scene we saw today.” 

            Quite a few shops and restaurants opened their doors early to feed the crowds and I had some tasty fish cakes, washed down with a Carib, at 6AM just next door, baked by Dora who only opens her kitchen on J’ouvert morning. She also makes a legendary and tasty batch of ice cream just for Carnival. Other storefronts were boarded up with plywood and tarps to protect against the black oil and paint-soaked mob. We were warned to wear old clothes if we dared go out into the streets because contact with the greasy and painted jab-jabbers was unavoidable.

            We spent the rest of Monday looking for the next parade. The sonic boom of the lead trucks sometimes with a singer (or shouter) precariously balanced on the stack of big black speakers, would always be a sure sign that another procession or parade was under way. We rushed out into the street armed with our point-and-clicks to catch up with the trucks leading a group of colourful costumed kids, dancing women in scant glitzy bikinis and sequined or feathered head dresses, until the last and loudest of them passed just after 10PM with hundreds of dancing people outfitted with glow sticks, blinking tiaras and arbitrary parade outfits following behind. The revelry continued unabated into the wee-wee hours. That apparently was ‘Monday Night Mas’. 

This is a small island and the residents put on a big effort and tolerate an inordinate amount of mayhem, noise, public drinking and unprecedented mountains of garbage which all disappears by daylight. Crews of sanitation workers even sweep and clean the beach.  

            Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras elsewhere, is the last official day of carnival and here in Carriacou it starts out with the ‘Shakespeare Mas’. Two opponents or ‘Pierrots’, clad in long socks, a petticoat and a bright, long-sleeved shirt, draped with a cape made out of linoleum or painted cement bags (the effect is supposed to be a night in armour) take turns reciting or shouting couplets at each other in a bizarre adaption of the old bard’s ‘Julius Caesar’ or ‘King Henry V’. The two opponents each take turns, watched over by an umpire with a bell. Woe to the one who doesn’t do it well or misses a line! He instantly gets walloped by the other player with a whip or a stick, therefore the protective cape. Then they move on to the next village, followed by the spectators, where they face off against the local Pierrot until eventually all of them end up in Hillsborough for the grand final showdown. 

            Terry, a long-time resident, originally from Ontario. told me this anecdote. “I once asked one of the players which Shakespeare he was reciting. After a short pause and a look of contempt he retorted: William!”

            Tuesday afternoon, we were all waiting and waiting for the final event, the grand parade, which was supposed to take place around 2PM, island time. We were all packed into Cuddy’s, drinking rum punches and Caribs. It was a festive atmosphere, filled with anticipation and we drank more in that afternoon then we ever drink at home in a whole week. At one point a local man, well dressed, probably in his late 70’s started buying me beers, which I consider a turning point in my island identity. We talked about drinking and his theory is that alcohol in the tropics evaporates through the pores in sweat while in the cold north it gets trapped, mostly in the head. 

            And then it finally happened, around 5 o’clock, only a few hours late. The Big Parade, preceded by guess what: An old International flatbed truck with a gigantic stack of black speakers, blasting out the now familiar bass heavy boom-boom. Behind the truck followed several groups of women of all ages and sizes in colourful bikinis, proudly shaking their booty and dancing to the beat. (Women here are proud of their bodies, no matter what shape or size. I overheard one woman commend her friend who she hasn’t seen in while: ‘Honey, you put on some size!’ ‘Thanks luve, yes I’m feeling good,’ was the reply. Any woman from our northern culture would have broken down in tears and depression at such a compliment.) Next followed the sequined and glittery dancers with fancy headdresses and large wing-like appendages and more dazzling and gyrating women, a few costumed guys mixed in amongst them and then a group of adorable kids holding on to their moms, all in shiny and glittery outfits; more purple and gold bikinis, more grooving and jiving groups in various vibrant and gaudy garments and then three clowns on stilts took up the rear, performing acrobatic moves and steps and lo and behold, another boom-boom truck. Hey wait a minute! It’s the same lead truck and behind it the same group of red, green and gold bikini clad women dancing. They just looped the downtown and now they came around several more times until suddenly darkness fell and the parade split up into groups which continued on down main street where the massive wall of sound took over and the street party started with new found energy. This time the dynamics were fun and the paraders mixed in with ordinary folks and hundreds of teenagers and kids. The beer and rum flowed like a river and the boom-boom trucks were doing the rounds around town, making sure that nobody got a wink of sleep before midnight when it all suddenly was over. 

The police enforce this deadline strictly and woe to those who dare to party past the stroke of midnight because now it is Ash Wednesday and the repentance and fasting is supposed to replace the revelry and excesses of the carnival. And as if it never happened, Wednesday morning started out quiet and the streets and beaches were cleaned and only a purple, glittery necklace hanging on the chair out front was the sole reminder of the crazy days gone by. 

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