Lights, Feathers, and Oil-Covered Jab-Jabs; My Never-Ending Weekend of Celebration at Grenada’s Carnival

*Knock *Knock

The bus veered to the side of the road while the conductor slid the door open. Squeezing past, my host brother Dexter and I climbed out of the bus, which again is really just a large van. Standing on my toes to stretch out my legs, I looked around to find myself on the bridge in front of Grenada’s National Stadium. It was only about 7:30 in the evening or so, but it was already dark. A string of white tents lined a gravel road leading up to the stadium. We followed a handful of people down the road and pulling out our tickets for the Soca Monarch Competition, went into the stadium. The process was simple, unlike home, a security scan with a handheld metal detector and the admissions person ripped your ticket and handed you the stub. We walked through the tunnel and out in front of us opened up a grand stage with half of the field open in front of it. The stadium was relatively empty at this point as we were on-time, which means we were early. But we had plenty of available seats to choose from, so we went up to the higher rows in the lower bowl and sat down right in front of the Judges’ Table. I sat back and put my feet up on the seat in front of me. Looking around, you could feel a sense of anticipation in the air as the stadium slowly began filling up with patrons.

An hour later, the stadium was packed full. Every seat on my side of the stadium was filled and the crowd on the field was standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Eventually the host of the Soca Monarch Competition came out and excitement erupted as he introduced the first performer. The night was to begin with the ten groovy soca artists. Groovy soca is known for being a bit slower than the more popular original soca, but still unique and entertaining in its own right. Artists were judged based on a series of criterion including things like rhythm, lyrics, crowd response, and overall performance of the song.
A video played on the two giant screens on either side of the stage. The artist was the main character in a skit that set up the premise of the song. The introduction video I found could foreshadow how well the artist would perform. Some videos got the crowd hyped as it would transition into the song as the artist burst onto the stage. Every now and then there would be a video that would kind of fall flat, much like its corresponding song.

One particular video began with the artist Blake Dan, who is caught up with the sight of a particular girl and desperate to get her attention. He was standing on a pier over the water. He is so taken by her, he jumps into the water. The crowd is quiet for a moment and then erupts in laughter when he starts flailing in the water, unable to swim. He was aiming to pull the same move Squints did to coax a kiss out of Wendy Peppercorn in The Sandlot. A few people jumped in after him, pulling him out of the water to safety. Lying in the sand, CPR is beginning to be performed and he goes for the kiss, only to discover he was kissing one of the men went in after him! The crowd went nuts as the beat dropped and he came bursting out onto the stage beginning his song. He absolutely nailed his entrance. I got caught up in the music, but soon noticed that something was off as a weird vibe spread through the stadium. Everyone began to look around confused, then after realizing the microphone wasn’t working waved to the Judges’ Table to cut the song. The song was cut and the technical difficulty was resolved. The crowd was disgruntled, as the performance started off so well and was just ruined by something so trivial. They ran the video back and he performed his song, but I can only imagine how it would have gone had the microphone worked the original time. Blaka Dan’s ‘Last Horn,’ ended up finishing in a three-way tie for second. Nonetheless, his performance was still by far my favorite of the Groovy Soca Competition.

A little bit after midnight, the last of the groovy soca artists performed. It was now time for the Power Soca Competition to start, the part of the night everyone really came for.
The first of the soca artists to come out was Lil Natty and Thunder with their hit song, “Top Striker.” The two performers came out decked in soccer uniforms, kicking a blow-up soccer ball around their dancers and into oversized nets placed on the stage as they sang their song. At one point in the song, they had everyone on the field in front of the stage run to the right. Then they had them run to the left; then to the back and so on. There was a storm of people were swirling around the field in the stadium. The place was absolutely rocking. As soon as it ended, I stood up in ovation.

“Wow, that was wild,” I said, turning to Dexter.

“Yeah,” he replied, shaking his head. “But they messed up the lyrics.”

For the second time that night, it was evident to me the importance the lyrics have in these songs. It seems as though there is a lot more emphasis placed on the lyrics in the music here. Now for me, I couldn’t understand the lyrics anyway because I’m still getting acclimated to their accent. But the importance of the lyrics in the songs still became apparent to me. Dexter was right, too, as their song ended up placing second.

The rest of the night was a bit of a roller coaster. At times my eyes got heavy, as I had been up for almost 20 hours straight. Then another great song would come on and I would get picked right back up by the music. We stayed for nine of the fourteen soca artists, leaving the stadium at 3:00 in the morning. The competition went on through the morning, not finishing until well after the sun came up.

We stepped back out onto the bridge, looking at each windshield decal number on the busses. There were plenty of 7s, 8, 1s, and even some 2s, but no 5 busses. The 5 bus was what we needed to catch to go back to Gouyave. Realizing we had to wait, we walked down the road to a street corner and sat down on the curb. We could still hear the echoes of the performances inside the stadium down the road. After about an hour of waiting, a bus barreled around the corner. We stood up and tried to see above the headlights what number it was. Seeing it was a 5, we flagged it down and climbed into the front row of seats. We swung back down to the stadium and after filling up with other departing concert-goers, started the journey back to Gouyave. The driver accelerated up and down the hills as I slid back and forth in my seat. I couldn’t fight back the sleep anymore; leaning my head back on the top of the seat, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!”

The bus braked hard and I snapped awake as my weight shifted forward, catching myself on the driver’s seat in front of me. The conductor sitting next to me opened the door and a man in the back of the bus frantically jumped out, requesting the driver wait for him. Everyone in the bus sat in confusion and a few short moments later, the man returned and got back on the bus. He began asking everyone if they knew the boy who just got out of the bus at the stop before. No one seemed to know, but the driver said he’d know him to see him.

Evidently, the frantic man had his phone slip out of his pocket. The boy sitting next to him, seeing an opportunity, proceeded to signal his stop with a knock on the window. Then when the man stepped out of the van to let the boy out, the boy discreetly pocketed the phone and took off. The man didn’t realize his phone was stolen until the bus started moving again. At which point I was woken up by his calls to stop the bus.

A short while later we finally arrived in Gouyave; the time was about 5:15 in the morning. The budding silence of the morning was in the air as the stars glimmered over the treetops on the mountains. Dexter and I walked up the hill to my homestay.

“Look! Look!” Dexter proclaimed, nudging my arm.

I looked up, and following his finger I saw what he was pointing at. In the crevice of two trees, a bright star traced by a trail of fire, streaked across the sky and faded into the night. Goosebumps ran down my arms. It was the most prominent and beautiful meteor I have ever seen.

* * *

I slept until about 11:30 in the morning, forcing myself out of bed in spite of wanting only to stay in bed and sleep the day away. I had to do what I could to keep my body clock normal and couldn’t afford to sleep in too long. There wasn’t anything Carnival-related going on during the day, so I had some time to kill.

*Bzzz

“Want to go to the swimming spot I showed you?” read a text from Kevin Prigge, the Volunteer I will be replacing.

I threw on some swim trunks and went down to his apartment on the main road. We walked past the community field and up a winding road. Stepping through the gaps of some abandoned, run-down buildings we came upon a river. On one end was waterfall that spilled into a sort of irrigation canal that continued into the rest of the river and out to the Caribbean Sea. We looked over the edge at the water about 10-15 feet below. I turned to set my bag down underneath a tree and before the bag hit the ground, I heard a splash. Turning back around, Kevin was gone, having already jumped off the ledge and into the water. I laughed as I walked over to the edge, seeing him swimming in the water below. The water below was deep and clear of rocks in the center, making it safe to jump.

With one foot firmly planted on the concrete ledge, I counted to three and threw myself as far out as I can. My arms flailed in circles as I point my feet downward, splashing into the cold, refreshing water. We took turns jumping from the ledge, catching a ball in mid-air. After one of my jumps, a local man appeared at the corner and turned his back to us. In a coordinated, yet out of control fashion, did a back-flip off the ledge into the water. He quietly proceeded up the river and began bathing in its water, evidently either his water was out or he had no other place to bathe.

That afternoon I hopped back on a bus and made my way down to the National Stadium. Panorama was taking place, an event where nine steel pan bands from across the island perform. I met some fellow Peace Corps Trainees there; we purchased our tickets and went in as the sound of the steel pans rehearsing echoed from outside of the stadium. I was particularly looking forward to Panorama, as I’ve always enjoyed the sound of a steel pan. Now, Panorama is known for being one of the lesser-attended and neglected events of Carnival in Grenada. Consequently, it’s performed on the smaller side of the stadium adjacent to the stage where the Soca Monarch Competition was held the night before. We were baffled, however, to find that the stage was still being built as we got there. Nonetheless we took our seats and waited as the DJ played music to entertain the crowd. But after about three hours or so, a man came out and declared that due to complications with the stage, Panorama had been postponed to the following Saturday. An immediate outcry rang out in the stadium as the patrons were upset not only that the show had been postponed, but also because they took our tickets at the gate and kept the stubs. Consequently, we had no way to verify our attendance for a refund. Since then the Pan bands that were set to perform have declined the opportunity to play next weekend and demanded compensation from the Spicemas Corporation Office that coordinates all the Carnival events. There have been calls across the island for the resignation of the leading members of Spicemas Corporation for the cancellation of Panorama. There is great pride in the steel pan music and it plays a significant role in Grenadian culture. The bands, many 100 members strong and a majority of them youths, spent countless nights practicing and rehearsing for their Panorama performance. Honestly, I am just disappointed I didn’t get to experience it for myself.

* * *

My alarm rang out on Monday morning at 3:00 a.m. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I climbed out of bed and flipped on the light to my room. I flipped open my suitcase and dug in, pulling out a plain white T-shirt and my least favorite pair of shorts. I stepped out into the early morning to walk down to Kevin’s apartment. Inside was Kevin with a number of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers from St. Vincent, visiting for Carnival. Dressed in old t-shirts and bandanas, we hopped on a bus to head down to St. George’s for J’ouvert (pronounced “joo-vey”). We get off the bus and walked through the Sendall Tunnel that gives way to the Carnage. The Carnage is the U-shaped harbor in St. George’s; lights are strung out along the streetlamps overseeing the boats anchored in the harbor. Walking along the waterfront sidewalk, we passed by the food and drink stands preparing for the J’ouvert. Stepping out into the street, the chilling sound of chains dragging on the pavement caused me to look over my shoulder. Looking back was the silhouette of a man, covered head to toe in slick black oil. He had a Viking helmet with horns on the side, chains wrapped around his chest and dragging behind him. It was an eerie sight in the dark early morning.

For those that do not know, J’ouvert is a cultural Carnival tradition in Grenada. Its prominent component is the ‘jab-jab,’ featuring devil-like figures with horns, chains, and covered in oil. The history of the jab-jab is rooted in the times of slavery. Black slaves at this time were not permitted to participate in the Carnival celebration. They embraced the representation of the devil as a form of rebellion, as it was a label placed on them by their owners. After emancipation, however, freed slaves would paint themselves black in oil and grease as a tribute to their past and a celebration of their freedom from slavery. They wore horned helmets and dragged ball and chains. Some would even go so far as carry dead animals. The dead animals have since been banned, but that didn’t stop some people. On an occasion or two, I saw some dead fish carried in people’s mouths and even a dead snake strung out on a man’s shoulder.

It was like a scene out of Walking Dead as we found ourselves surrounded by more and more of the devil-like figures as we walked the bend around the road and up to Port Louie, where the J’ouvert parade was set to start. We pushed through what was now a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. I turned my shoulders and slipped through a gap. As I did so, a figure coming the opposite way reached his hand into a bucket. I knew what was coming and I closed my eyes to brace myself. A handful of thick, warm oil was slapped onto my shoulder and rubbed across my neck. We were fair game now as each one of us began getting picked off as oil, paint, and even chocolate was spilled onto us. We reached a round-about where two massive trucks were parked, a number of speakers stacked on their beds. A mass of people surrounded the trucks, dancing to the soca music blasting from the speakers. I took a glance around, not believing what I was seeing. Shoulder-to-shoulder in the road was a sea of devil-like figures covered in oil and paint. Off to the side was a marina, where anchored sailboats lined the waterfront in an orderly manner. Beyond the sailboat masts over the water was a small, green hillside in the backdrop. A faint pink hue painted the sky just over the hill, illuminating the whiteness of the clouds in the early morning light. It was an incredible sight-seeing the heavenly clouds in the sky looking over the mass of devil-like figures dancing in the streets.

The trucks kicked into gear, signaling the start of the J’ouvert parade. The black mass of people followed behind the trucks, ‘chipping’ to the booming soca music. Chipping is the form of dance here that takes place with Carnival. It’s relatively easy to pick up, too. It consists of pointing your toes outward and shuffling, stomping your feet to the beat of the music. The morning progressed into the day, and the hot sun began to bake our skin under the layers of oil covering us. By the time we finally reached the end of the Carnage, our formerly white clothes were caked entirely in black oil. We took turns leaping off the sidewalk and into the harbor, the soothing cool water rinsing our bodies somewhat clean. Climbing back out of the water and drying off, we walked back through Sendall Tunnel, its white walls marked with black handprints and streaks of oil. Upon reaching the bus terminal, we piled into the trash bag-covered seats in the bus. The ride home was hot, congested, and particularly loud as the driver had the Soca music on full volume. But between the heat and lack of sleep, none of us had any problem dozing off on the way home.

About three hours later my alarm went off again and I rolled out of bed. Still groggy from my nap, I stumbled into another white shirt and some athletic shorts and made my way down to Kevin’s. We jumped onto another bus and rode along the road as the burnt orange sun set down on the horizon of the Caribbean Sea. We stepped off the bus in St. George’s in a déjà vu moment, walking along the Carnage under the night sky just as we did early that same morning. Remnants of oil and trash could be found on the side of the roads, but the road itself was surprisingly clean as crews came in to sweep the streets after the J’ouvert.

Again we made our way to the top of Port Louie. However, instead of weaving our way through a sea of jab-jabs and oil, we found ourselves this time surrounded by bright, fluorescent lights. It was time for Monday Night Mas, known for being the parade of bright neon lights. We met up with the other Volunteers that were dressed in a variety of brightly-colored t-shirts they received from their band Amazing Colors. With the band package came fluorescent glasses, a flashing headband, and a blinking hand-held tube. There were eight bands playing, which basically means there were eight different trucks with the booming speakers the bands to follow. Each band followed along its truck, following the same route as the J’ouvert that morning.

The whole experience of Monday Night Mas was really quite surreal. The atmosphere was euphoric. All around me was a sea of blinking lights and vibrant colors illuminating the night sky. You could see waving lights as far as the eye could see in both directions. The DJ atop one of the trucks coordinated the band to wave their glow sticks back and forth in unison. The parade of lights chipped to the music back down into the Carnage over the course of the next couple of hours.

Again was a moment of contrast as that morning, we were covered in oil; a few hours later we were doing the same thing, but this time surrounded by a sea of fluorescent lights. At the end of it all, we piled back into a bus and made the long trek home back to Gouyave.

* * *

The familiar tune of “Top Strikers” murmured through the walls of my homestay.

“Oh my God it never stops,” I sighed with a laugh, rolling over in my bed.

For the fourth time, I collected myself and prepared to head to town. Today was Pretty Mas, the culminating parade of Carnival. Pretty Mas is the Carnival you see in the photos at home, where men and women alike are dashingly decorated in elaborate outfits of feathers and glitter. I strapped on my sandals and caught a bus into St. George’s.

Once there, I grabbed a drink from one of the stands and took a seat on a park bench overlooking the water. A light rain was fading in and out, trying to dampen the energy bubbling up in the Carnage. The parade itself wasn’t going to start for another couple hours, but there was an excitement in the area as pedestrians began to fill the sidewalks. I sat back and watched the boats swaying back and forth in the water as pedestrians passed in front of me.

The sidewalks filled out with on-lookers waiting in anticipation for the bands to come through. Eventually the muffled music from the first truck began to get louder and clearer as it made its way around the Carnage. In front were the king and queen of the band, dressed in elaborate outfits with grand displays of feathers and colors attached to their backs. Behind them were the trucks, followed by the bands chipping to the music. One after another more bands came down the road, bringing more people to the party. Darkness soon fell over the Carnage, now once again lit up by the string of lights spanning the streetlamps. A torrential rain began to pour down on the parade. Many people ran for cover underneath the storefronts. But others pulled out their umbrellas and continued chipping as if to say, ‘the show must go on.’ The rain continued dumping on us, but it couldn’t dampen the spirit of Carnival.

After another night of parades and dancing, I went back to the terminal to catch a bus home. The rain came pouring down, but I didn’t mind as I was already soaked at this point. I took a seat on the street corner under the lamppost outside the terminal and waited for a 5 bus to pass. I took in the scene around me, pedestrians walking past the terminal and jumping in the busses parked on the side of the road.

“Gouyave?” I heard a conductor call from down the road, next to a 5 bus.

I jumped up and ran down to the bus, climbing into the congested vehicle. After it filled up even past capacity, we made our way back up to Gouyave.

* * *

The next morning, I walked along the Carnage on my way to training. A few bottles and some trash were floating in the water. Wood pallets from the drink and food stands were stacked in piles on the sides of the roads. Other than that, there was no trace of the festivities from the four days prior. A quiet, hangover lingered over the Carnage. There were only a handful of pedestrians making their commute to work, much fewer than usual. Carnival was finally over. Four days and four nights of non-stop parades, music, and shows had come to an end. Carnival was unlike anything I have ever experienced, truly a cultural revolution. I, like the rest of Grenada, was exhausted from the sleep-deprived and eventful four days. Yet it was entirely worth it; I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

Cheers!

Soca Pano
Panoramic view of the show from our seats.
Soca
My host brother Dexter and I at the Soca Monarch Competition.
Panorama 1
Pictured (left to right): Peace Corps Trainees John Lyness, Deborah Campelia and myself awaiting the start of the Panorama show.

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