Jab Molassie and Jab on the Islands of Grenada and Trinidad


by Kelvin Jacob

Many hundred years ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. As a religious practice, Catholics were not supposed to eat meat during Lent, so the festival was called Carnevale, which means, “to put away the meat.” Carnevale in Italy became quite famous over time; and the practice quickly spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. In their conquest for wealth and power, the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, including the Caribbean and brought with them their tradition of celebrating Carnival (Liverpool 83).

In the 19th Century, Europeans brought many African slaves to work on these plantations under very inhumane conditions to maximize their profits. These Africans brought with them their cultural practices and cultural traditions which they practiced openly at first, then covertly after these practices were banned (Liverpool 22). The early Carnival in many of the islands were celebrated by the French and British where huge masked balls were held; the enslaved were never allowed to be a part of these Carnivals but they held their own celebrations or watched,  mocking their masters have a good time.

So today, a significant importance to Caribbean Carnivals are the ancient African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks. The Caribbean Carnival traditions also borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects (bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric, and feathers) to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force. African dance and music traditions transformed the early Carnival celebrations of the Europeans after Emancipation, as African drum rhythms, large puppets, stick fighters, and stilt dancers began to make their appearances in the Carnival (Liverpool 120).

Carnival celebrations are now found throughout the Caribbean diaspora, Canada, the United States, and Europe. It is safe to say that most of the Caribbean Carnival traditions were born out of the enslaved borrowing cultural practices from their slave masters who were famous for their lavish costume balls. With careful observation, the slaves united elements from their own cultures to that of their masters to create characters such as Jab Jab, Jab Molassie (Devils), Midnight Robbers, Dame Lorraine, and Baby Doll. This article looks at the origins of Jab Jab and Jab Molassie and gives meaning to why Jab Jab is unique to Grenada.

Jab Jab or “pretty devil” got its name from the French word “diable” which means devil. According to Jeff Henry, his interaction with the members of the group who play Jab Jab in Trinidad taught him the folklore, and information from community members point the origin of the Jab Jab to Ghana in West Africa. In the early days, the presentation was very similar to an African societal ceremony where the early masqueraders painted their faces in different colours, sang African songs, and forcefully cracked their whips. Evidence in Trinidad’s Carnival today, shows that one of the largest contemporary Jab Jab bands parading the streets, comes from Couva led by Rodney and Ronald Alfred. When the mas came to the streets of Trinidad, it was played by one to four persons and was called “coolie devils” because of the large number of Indians who played the mas. The Alfreds’ who were also Indians, increased the band numbers to almost fifty players which has increased since. An interesting point worth noting is that although the band’s size increased, its modern concept and presentation are still rooted in the history and tradition of the mas.

According to Jeff Henry, the original costume was a short jumper made from satin and taffeta beautifully decorated with cut out shapes of heart pieces resembling a Mediaeval Jester’s Costume. The masquerader carried long and short whips made from crocus bag, braided and bonded with twine and waxed with bee’s wax. (The wax must have been effective in bonding the threads to prevent it from unraveling). There was also a wooden handle made from the groo groo tree, attached to the whip, to give the masquerader a firm grip in maintaining control of the whip. The expertise and showmanship of the masquerader is his ability to crack the whip as well as give and receive blows from the whip.

Over the years, additions and subtractions have been made to the costume. Today, it consist of a satin headpiece with two horns, a shirt which retains the heart shape on the chest, pants, and a mask. The traditional whips, long and short, made from rope with wooden handles are still used today. The long whip is to crack and intimidate and the short one is used for battle as it creates more damage. The satin pants and shirt are adorned with mirrors to reflect the sun in combat to dazzle the eyes of the opponent; to the waist and bottom of the pants there are triangular shaped points of cloth from which bells hang (Henry 36)

Ronald Alfred, a third generation Jab Jab player, has been playing for the past fourteen years; he sees this whip fighting art form as a very sacred tradition handed down to him from his father as tradition that must be kept alive. As a famous Whip Master from the village of Couva, he teaches the others in the community to play the mas in the way it is supposed to be played. For him, about three days before the Carnival he would fast from alcohol and meat; On Carnival Sunday night he would take a bath from special herbs all in his preparation for battle (Traditional Mas Archive).  He recounts that after persons received their bath, they would have to come to him and he would hit them a hard lash with the whip to make sure they were ready for battle. Depending on how they responded to the blow from the whip a decision would be made as to whether they would be put in front of the band, in the back of the band, or to stay home.

Interestingly enough, this form of Jab Jab also existed in Grenada, Nellie Payne from Grenada described the masqueraders as Whipmen, and the characteristics were also similar to that of Trinidad’s Jab Jab. The men were dressed in brightly coloured satin, wire masks, and head ties made of white cloth with two peaks to represent large ears on either side of the head. On Carnival day they were given room to perform as they cracked their long plaited whips in a mock battle, the attacked defended himself with a stick. This Mas was however, short lived as it was banned in 1970 as injuries took place from the mock battle, which erupted into open riots. The following year, during carnival, the men appeared armed with stones and bottles which they tapped singing: “No stick, no whip, but bottle and stone.” This was also outlawed putting the coffin in the grave to bury this kind of mas. Jeff Henry also made the observation in his research of Traditional Mas in the Eastern Caribbean. In his observation of characters that might have similarities to the Jab Jab in Trinidad, he was amazed to find out that the Jab Jab and the Jab Molassie are one and the same in name.

The Jab Molassie, like the Jab Jab is another variety of devil mas; Jab which comes from the French patois for diable which means devil, and molassie is French patois for molasses. This mas was born out of the plantation system in the Caribbean in the 17th Century (Henry 39). In the days of slavery, whenever fire broke out on an estate, the slaves on the surrounding properties were immediately mustered and marched to the spot, horns and shells were blown to collect them and the gangs were followed by the drivers cracking their whips and curing with cries and blows to their work. According to Maureen Warner- Lewis, dabbing the body with paint, or mud, like the blue devils in popular J’ouvert mas is a carry-over from Africa; and dangerous spirits being restrained by chains as in blue devil or dragon mas is also a transplant from the Niger Delta area of Nigeria.  After emancipation, the freed slaves began to represent this scene as a commemoration of the change in their condition. The procession of the “Cannes Brulees” used to take place on the night of August 1st, in keeping with the date of their emancipation (Liverpool 227).

According to Jeff Henry, in the early 20th century, the Jab Molassie was one of the most popular J’ouvert morning characters. They paraded in a small group of not more than three or four members: a big jab, a little jab, a dwarf-like figure and a drummer who beat out the complex polyrhythm with two sticks on a ‘sweet oil tin’. The big jab wore a pair of horns on his head, on his back was a pair of wings, and a wire tail stood taut between his legs. A chain was tied around his waist, which was controlled from behind by the little jab. He had long fingernails made out of galvanized metal, was bare back, and danced bare foot. He blew a whistle in counter rhythm to the drumming. The big Jab did the prancing and dancing, but was kept under control by the chains held by the little jab. The third member of the group was the drummer, who beat the complex rhythm with two sticks of the biscuit tin. His role was to play the rhythm and follow the two jabs around. The Jab Molassie of Trinidad and the Jab Molassie of Grenada which today is called Jab Jab, share the same origin and practices with some variations. Referencing Grenada’s days as a sugar island, molasses were initially used; today, the masqueraders cover their bodies with red, blue, or white body paint, but predominantly used engine oil. They adorned themselves with horned helmets and carry heavy chains, ropes and various reptiles to symbolize the power and strength of their ancestral spirits.  The devil-come-to-life, is portrayed by dragging a coffin to symbolize the brutality of the slave trade and plantation life.

The question then is this: Who is the devil or devils, as demonstrated by the Jab Jab masqueraders? The answer can be found in the Jab Jab historical connection to the fight against slavery and the freedom that follows. There are different stories of how the Jab Jab masquerade in carnival came about. One story which is common to both islands as reported by Jeff Henry in his account on Trinidad and Nellie Payne’s account on Grenada. It is the reenactment of a tragedy or common practice which occurred on the plantation, where a slave was thrown into a boiling copper of molasses for refusing to work. At carnival time the spirit of that slave comes back to haunt the masters in the form of the Jab Jab, covered in molasses or black tar.

There seems to be a link between the Jab Jab and the Jab Molassie of Trinidad and Grenada’s Jab Jab. Remembering very well that as early as the Cedular of populations in 1783, French planters and their slaves from Grenada moved to Trinidad (Liverpool 91). This Cedular, under governor Don Jose Maria Chacon, involved tax exemptions, and free grants of land and other incentives to encourage people to come to Trinidad to live and invest. Of course, the influx of new settlers did not come only from Grenada, many came from other islands where the French settled, like Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. However, Michael Anthony, explained in his book that a key island of significance here, was Grenada which was settled by the French in 1650, and then captured by the British in 1762 during a bitter struggle. The French settlers in Grenada remained very uneasy under the British rule, and as early as 1777, a planter by the name of Roume De St Laurent came to Trinidad with some followers to see if they would like Trinidad well enough to settle there, and so they did. Even after the Cedular of populations, Africans who gained their freedom before 1838, and the indentured Africans there migrated to Trinidad after (Henry 38).

Moreover, in the late part of the 18th century, the island of Grenada and by extension its people experienced some difficult times. The island was rocked by a severe earthquake in 1766; one year later in 1767, the slaves there staged a significant slave uprising. As if this was not enough, in 1771 and 1775, the town which was built from wood was burnt to the ground. To add insult to injury, in 1795 Julien Fedon staged the Fedon Rebellion which lasted for about 15 months (Thomas 408). All these disturbances in Grenada, forced more French planters to leave the island with all of their assets. It is against this backdrop of the migration to Trinidad by large segments of Grenada’s French-speaking and African population, the claim is made that Grenadians played a significant role in bringing Traditional Mas and Carnival to Trinidad. It would be over zealous to say they were the only ones; but I proffer that they were more significant than French Catholics from the other islands.

Over the past few years there have been much controversy over Grenada’s branding of Carnival in 2011, with the theme: “Uniquely rooted in our rich ancestral traditions. Spicemas: Home of 100,000 Jab Jabs”. This theme sparked discussions from persons in various islands including Trinidad and Tobago as to what right the island has to such a claim. It is true that any island which was once inhabited by African slaves working on a sugar plantation can make this claim, but what may not be true is that not all of these islands maintained the tradition of the Jab Molassie. As mentioned earlier, the portrayal of Jab Molassie and the Grenadian style Jab Jab as part of Carnival can be traced back to the immediate post-emancipation period. At the granting of emancipation the ex-slaves were now allowed to take an active part in the festivities and street parades. They did what came naturally to them, they displayed their African past and their present conditions in the Caribbean. As such they displayed African leaders and their respective ethnic groups, and animals of their beloved homeland, as well as their interpretation of their former slave masters in the form of Jab Jab. The cruelty they had undergone during slavery was aptly expressed in their representations of their masters’ evil. The initial use of the molasses was a significant way of showing their disgust to their masters by using what brought pain to them and joy to their masters to cover their body. In the mind of the slaves, anyone who made them suffer such unspeakable atrocities could only be portrayed as the devil.

It was in 1991, however, that Jab Jab became a more contemporary part of Grenada’s Carnival celebrations. This was made possible with the innovations of the Charles Brothers heading the musical band Moss International, and calypsonian Lennox Douglas commonly called Singing MC providing lead vocals, recorded the first classic Jab Jab tune, “Jambalasie”. It was also a first for the conch shell, a major element of Jab Jab, to be recorded in song. The song which was based on the struggles of the people taking them back to plantation life, political and social issues, went on to prove the power of the Jab Movement easily winning the coveted Road March title.

According to historian, Dr. Nichole Phillip-Dowe, Grenada can boast of being the only island that displays, year after year, from as far back as Carnival has been recorded, unique aspects of traditional mas. Although Grenada shares a common history and culture with its neighbours, it is the only island with a significant uniqueness when it comes to the use of old engine oil as the main costume of the Jab Jab. According to calypsonian Shortpree from Grenada, “this mas is like no other, this jab is like ah damn obeah.” This line of his song highlights the aspect of Grenada’s Carnival which distinguishes us from the rest of the region.

Dr. Keith Nurse, who specializes in international trade law, cultural industry studies, international relations theory and methodology; conducted an economic impact study on Grenada’s Carnival in 2011. As part of his report he said, “Grenada’s branding with Jab Jab as the focus is very clear, when you see it you know it is Grenada, it is not some other country in the region.” Dr. Nurse highly commended the branding, saying there is nothing like Grenada’s Jab Jab. What makes Grenada’s Jab Jab even more unique, is the calypso spin off, “Jab Jab Music,” which is the most glaring indigenous, locally made artefact of Grenada’s Carnival. The music is characterized by a deep rhythmic bass accompanied by the blowing of the conch shell, and a repeated chant as part of the chorus. According to Dr. Nurse, “the Jab Jab rhythm in Grenada is possibly the best Jab Jab rhythm, there is nothing like it, in Trinidad we have something similar but, in Grenada, it’s at its best rendition.’’

It would therefore seem correct for Grenada to claim Jab Jab as its own. To say it is indigenous to Grenada would be inaccurate though, as Carnival cultural activities were allowed on all of the islands of the Caribbean as a way to let the slaves have some enjoyment. Moreover, if Jab Jab was born out of the sugar cane plantation then all Caribbean islands followed the same pattern of celebrations characterized by singing, dancing, masking, covering the body with molasses etc. It would be more accurate to say that Grenada’s claim to Jab Jab is a unique one, rather than indigenous. The Mas is unique to Grenada because two traditional “devil mas” was merged into one; Jab Molassie and Jab Jab to create what is known in Grenada today as Jab Jab. The Mas retained its traditional characteristics and theme and incorporated music to take it to the next level. More recently in 2013, the Mas was legally registered as a trade name under the Spice Mas Corporation to Grenada.

These two Traditional Mas from the islands which shared a long history of migration, is deeply rooted in the African traditions. Although they vary between the islands in name and in some cases characteristics, one would agree they both add to the rich cultural heritage and the Carnival celebrations on both islands. The Jab Jab which was banned in Grenada because of its dangerous nature, went on to become an icon of Trinidad’s Traditional Mas while the Jab Molassie declined. In Grenada however, the Jab Jab which was banned, managed to form a relationship with the Jab Molassie, and became the “new” Jab Jab retaining some of its characteristics. The word Jab Jab today, can be added to the “Carnival Dictionary” as a homonym as it relates to Traditional Mas in Grenada and Trinidad. In distinguishing them we would have to now speak of the Trinidad style Jab Jab which is unique to Trinidad, and the Grenada style Jab Jab which is unique to Grenada.