Whither J’ouvert in Guyana?

Guyanese in Georgetown had a resounding, populous J’ouvert for this year’s independence anniversary, which saw overwhelming multitudes descend upon the National Park, some of them moving there after leaving the flag raising ceremony at D’Urban Park. The National Park was crowded to capacity, while vehicles were parked in every conceivable space covering a very wide area adjacent to the park over spilling into Lamaha Street, up along Albert Street, and the outskirts of Camp Ayanganna.

The show itself was lacklustre, with little to recommend its artistic or entertainment quality. It did not fully justify the overwhelming interest shown in it by the population, but a number of things about it are significant. The first is the very popularity of the event, which is being stressed in this analysis; the second is its relative emptiness, which is linked to the third – the opportunities offered by an event of its kind and the fact that such opportunities are so far going to waste; fourth is the fact that while it is a factor of the popular culture, it is an event clothed in imitation with no cultural roots; fifth is its vast potential for private sector participation in national events and sixth is that it seems to be settling into a trend having started with Mashramani.

The rise of J’ouvert in Guyana makes for a very interesting study of festivals and popular culture. The accompanying study of the action of governments where such festivals and popular events are concerned is considerably more depressing. Government’s intrusions into Mashramani offer a very good example of this, as was the case with the drastic, inhibiting change to the parade route. It invites a few helpful questions. Do governments pay any heed to cultural studies? Do they carry out any feasibility and impact assessments when they are about to consider major changes to popular national events? Do they regard the implications of disruptive interference that affect the very people at the heart of these events? Political decisions, however, will exercise power over all these technical, cultural considerations.

Related to the foregoing is the observation that J’ouvert in Guyana seems to be here to stay.  Popular fashion tends to be ephemeral, but J’ouvert was not just paying a fleeting visit from Trinidad. It is taking up residence.

But what is J’ouvert? The spelling is mistakenly rendered in Guyana as “jouvay,” purely phonetic based on its pronunciation. It is a contraction of the French phrase jour ouvert, which translates to “opening of the day” or daybreak. Its origins are the Trinidad carnival.

It opens up/heralds the first day of carnival. Sunday night is Dimanche Gras which leads straight into early Monday morning and starts off the festivities of Carnival Monday – the first of the two days on the road. There are two major activities. The first action on the road begins because people leave what they were doing the night before – party, the Dimanche Gras show, or whatever, and start lining up behind the trucks. The big trucks move off from known locations in the city and the revels begin with recorded music or live steel bands. The several groups with multitudes of people dance and follow in Pied Piper fashion behind trucks along various routes, reveling until sunrise.

The other activity is the “Ol Mas”. Groups or individuals put on costumes and make-up to play different characters in satirical representations in which they use puns and theatrical enactments to act out dramatic commentary. It is high satire making fun of or making critical comments on what has been happening socially or politically.

At the same time, the devils of various kinds prance about. There are “jab-jab” (Patois for the French diable which means devil) and “jab molassi” or the “molasses devil”. Some of these will be covered all over in motor oil grease or in mud with a loving passion to give innocent bystanders a big greasy or muddy hug.

Now all of this belongs to an old, strong, cultural tradition in the carnival in patois-speaking or former French-speaking Roman Catholic countries in the Caribbean. The language of carnival is Patois or French Creole, therefore J’ouvert carries rich tradition behind it.

However, in Guyana, it is just a name – just a word with no meaning in the Guyanese society. In Guyana it is a name given to a popular soca stage show held the night before a public holiday – Mashramani and now Independence. It carries over into the early morning, keeping revelers alive and setting or carrying on the party mood. That fits in with the carnival, but Guyana does not have the linguistic or cultural background to make the name carry the same meaning. Patois is alien to Guyanese speech and consciousness.

The first obvious observation then, is that this is not just a loan word, but an imitation. Up to the 1960s there were revels in Guyana which the framers of Mashramani adopted into the festival and called “Fore-day Morning Jump-Up”.  Fore-day morning is well known to Guyanese speech, but the revels at dawn with steel bands faded away completely. The Guyanese festivals are moving back to imitations rather than building on the indigenous and evolving traditions.

Second, there is no evolved structure to these new J’ouvert shows. They have been dominated by foreign artistes – mainly Trinidadian soca stars who draw the crowds; although this was not the case last week. Trinidadians were there but did not dominate.

These shows, however, present an opportunity. They are immensely popular. Something can be made of them. Feature foreign artistes, yes, because they will attract the large audiences. But also ensure that local performers have a prominent place in the programmes in a structured way. The guarantee of large crowds will attract the private sector to participate in these shows. There can then be reliable private investment in national events with mutual benefits. However, if this is going to be the case, such shows cannot be suddenly dropped from the agenda if a private sector sponsor withdraws. The state will have to ensure they remain a regular feature of local festivals, otherwise a firm tradition might not be built.

In 2016 and 2017 there was no Soca Monarch competition in Guyana’s Mashramani. This was because the private sector sponsors withdrew. Cancelling this competition was an error. It weakened Mashramani and frustrated what was a very lively developing and evolving tradition in the festival. It interfered with an event driven by the popular culture that added much verve, a sense of rivalry and achievement to Mashramani.

There is now an opportunity in the new J’ouvert shows to correct this. There could be a grand J’ouvert show, which will in essence be the Soca Monarch competition. There could be one or two leading international soca stars as featured artistes, but they should not take the stage until after the Soca Monarch competition. The local rivalry plus the mega stars will guarantee capacity attendance and this will keep corporate sponsors interested. At the same time it will ensure the building of that tradition.

The important line here is that the government will have to be prepared to finance it if there is no private sponsor. At the same time, the government will have to put in place strategies to negotiate and get a corporate sponsor on board. It cannot be uncertain and under threat of possible cancellation in any one year.

Incorporating the soca competition would also lend some meaning to the currently superficial J’ouvert shows. At the same time there will be some continuous development for local soca aspirants.

Exactly the same can be done with the Chutney Monarch competition. Trinidadian stars could be on the bill so that a grand show is guaranteed for the competing local artistes.

Rather than simply shut down these events and threaten important cultural development, invest in them in creative ways. Their preservation and positive evolution should not be left up to a private company which does not have the responsibility for sustainable development that a government has. The decision to shut down is taken much too easily.

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