It’s that time of year, when Jab emerge to haunt the streets of the Eastern Caribbean! I’ve always been fascinated (and slightly frightened) by Jab since I was a kid–Blue Jab, Red Jab, Green Jab, Mud Jab, Jab that spit fire, Jab with bat wings, Jab with devil mask, Jab in chains threatening to attack unless you “pay de devil!” But by far, my favorite are the Jab Molassie–oil slick, jet black, scowling, snarling, axe-carrying, rat-tail eating, rum-guzzling, conch-shell blowing, posse-deep and out-of-control like some horde climbed up from Hell! But wait, allyuh doesn’t know what Jab is? What? Well lemmee learn yuh…
Jab: French patois for ‘Diable’ (Devil).
The Jab Molassie is one of several varieties of devil folklore common to the Eastern Caribbean. Popular stories claim he was a slave, who met his death when he fell or was thrown into a vat of boiling molasses on a sugar plantation. He returned as a vengeful ghost, the Jab Molassie.
While the Jab Molassie is often associated Trinidad Carnival, he shares similarities with other Caribbean societies. The Jab Molassie costume consists of short pants or pants cut off at the knee, while his head is adorned with long devil horns.
Similar to the lanse kod of Haiti, he may smear his body with black grease, varnish, oil or tar to simulate molasses and his blackness, and carry chains, and wear locks and keys around his waist, and carry a pitch fork. In Grenada, the Jab Molassie’s counterpart is the black-skinned Jab Jab (or “double-devil”). These varied Jab were once more distinct, but have blurred over time as culture and peoples have traveled and interacted.
Though originally characters of European tradition, the more modern rendition of these varied Jab have their roots in slavery, as freedmen and freedwomen came to take over Carnival celebrations with the onset of emancipation. The lanse kod character of Haiti (pictured below) for instance attempts to blacken his body as much as possible, to become “as black as slaves.” In Trinidad and Grenada, the black-skinned Jab Molassie and Jab Jab of early Carnival similarly symbolized both the brutal system of slavery and the freedom that came after.
Ex-slaves would enter carnival after emancipation, dressed as figures in chains, beaten and harried by devils, as if to recreate the torment of their prior bondage. In mockery of their former owners the Jab carried a whip or pitchfork and dressed in either fanciful garb or smeared his body in paint. Having appropriated the symbols of authority once used to oppress them, the ex-slaves now wielded its power, and acted out the barely restrained—and at times dangerous—freedom it released.
In post-Emancipation 19th century Trinidad, as the early ex-slave Canboulay (Cannes Brule) processions gained prominence during Carnival, the more wealthy classes withdrew from the streets. This opened up the way for what became known as Jamette as “those without respect”—the badjohns, pimps, prostitutes and poor from the nearby slums—came to dominate Carnival.
Among the stick-fighters, baby dolls, piss-en-lit and other unsavory characters, the Jab played a special prominent role—grossly mocking and perverting the moral standards of the society that had abandoned them. As Carnival became more aggressive, and violence all too common, so too did the Jab have to become fiercer, if he was to survive.
Both Jab Molassie and Jab Jab take on a fierce appearance and exhibit rude and barely restrained behavior during Carnival. When the masquerader smears himself in the grease and oil of the character, he takes on the personality of the Jab—becoming possessed by the Carnival spirit. The once mild-mannered clerk or humble bricklayer can transform himself into this fearsome creature, recognizing neither kin nor friend on the road.
On Jouvay (Jouvert) morning and Carnival mas, Jab Molassie and Jab Jab make their appearance, a being of naked pent-up power and aggression unleashed upon all surrounding him. He feeds on the fear of the crowd and their shock at his vulgarity and lewdness.
In Grenada, many modern Jab Jab players trace their character to older African forms of spectacle, performance and dance. One account contends that “the Jab Jab occupies a space between the worlds of life and death,” and finds relation to the Egungun festival in Iragbiji, Nigeria, believing that Jab (like the Egunguns) “represent the spirits of the ancestors who have descended from the heavens/mountains…a period when the dead come to interact with the living.”
As this interpretation elaborates, “The Jab Jab’s portrayal – the choreography and imagery- bring focus on…African roots. The Jab horn signify his/her pact with the devil. The Jab is scantily dressed and vulgar as he/she gyrates to the music. The serpent/snake signal gratitude to African fertility deities – Damballah, Wedo-Ayeda, Wedo-Simbi. The chains, whips and other paraphernalia remind us of the suffering endured. The drums reflect the African slave trade.”
Jab celebration, especially in Grenada, comes with its own music–complete with what has been popularized as the “Jab Jab riddim,” defined often by conch shell blowing, a pounding beat and an infectious call and response (see video below).
So if you find yourself walking out one dark night in the Eastern Caribbean, and hear that blaring horn, staccato beat and a deafening chanting “Aye Yi Yi!” –run and hide! Jab is on the march!
All photos courtesy of ModernDayGilligan and Grenadad.