Written by Janine Mendes-Franco
(Originally appeared on GlobalVoices.org)
If you have ever attended Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago (or some other Caribbean islands, Grenada, for example) you will be familiar with the Jab Molassie — at least, if you are doing Carnival right. As traditional Carnival characters, Jab Molassies are one of several types of devils that populate the Carnival space, driving fear into the hearts of revellers and spectators alike.
On Carnival days, they typically take to the streets in groups, decked out in wings, horns, and a tail shaped from wire and covered with fabric or plaster of paris. They smear their bodies with grease, mud, or paint, carry chains and pitchforks, and produce frightening sounds by beating out rhythms on large biscuit tins, blowing shrill whistles, or screaming. A key part of their performance includes threatening to “wine” (a suggestive, hip-swivelling dance) on bystanders, either in an attempt to solicit payment or to bring life and authenticity to the fearsome character.
Without a doubt, the Jab Molassie adds much to the Carnival experience — but is it a suitable symbol for a tourism offering, especially when, according to some, it is “gentrified?” That is the question at hand after a video of the character performing at London’s 2023 World Travel Market (WTM) was shared in the local blogosphere, attracting both criticism and praise.
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One Instagram commentator immediately shared the backstory of the character, “particularly for the folks stuck in 17th [century] colonial rule and those refusing to be open to the fact that not all cultures praise whiteness”:
“This portrayal is a traditional (mas)querade named Jab (Diable) Molassie (Molasses), in translation molasses devil, derived from the 19th [century] plantation society. The mas is one of the signifiers of rebellion and resistance […] as the molasses represents the burnt product and remains of the sugar cane and the black, horned figure the embodied, decolonized performance of ‘devil’. The mas is played by a performer who has engaged great study, physical agility and adept understanding of characterisation. The mas was synonymous with saying, ‘If my blackness makes me evil, take evil!’ This mas welcomes discomfort. As a matter of fact, discomfort drives it. It is not concerned with political correctness and decency. This is a Trinidad and Tobago mas and there will be no apologising for it.”
While the Instagram user is correct in saying the mas is rooted in rebellion, various iterations of this devil exist beyond the confines of Trinidad and Tobago. The page Know Your Caribbean, in posting a viral video shared by Trace Caribbean, showed a glorious band of Jab Molassies in Martinique (where they are called Nèg Gwo Siwo) sweeping through a group of masqueraders, calling it “one of the most beautiful examples of how Carnival in the Caribbean was designed for colonial disruption”:
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The post further explained:
“What you are looking at is Nèg Gwo Siwo, a Carnival practice performed for almost 2 centuries by enslaved people and their descendants. While Europeans in the Caribbean had pretty masquerade balls before Lent, black people covered themselves in dark molasses to amplify the blackness of their skin. They called them the Molasses Negroes. Using something seen as valuable and expensive for the white man’s profit, to smear across their skin to make themselves the blackest version of their blackness. Look at the irony.
They took to the streets playing the drums they were banned from playing, chanting songs ridiculing the European elite, and wining and brukin’ down in ways that made white ladies clutch their pearls and pompous aristocratic men feel so uncomfortable they would do their utmost to stop it by sending the police they had in their pockets. Police brutality and riots were common.
Yet, year after year, during the heights of colonialism, black cultural suppression, where language, heritage and life were literally beaten out of them – they still could not kill the Nèg Gwo Siwo.
So this video you see today in 2023 is generations upon generations of a legacy of resistance, where whether we know it or not, we have this in our blood.
And this is why you must make room for the Nèg Gwo Siwo of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
And yes you can find many versions of this in the Caribbean – Jab Jab of Grenada, Lans Kod of Haiti, Jab Molassie of T&T, Los Tiznaos of Dominican Republic, Nèg Marron of French Guiana… the list goes on.
These days most use charcoal or oil motor oil, but the intention is the same – BLACK.
The Legacy of Resistance. Make room.”
It is a legacy of resistance that continues to this day, as illustrated by the Carnival 2023 portrayal of Grenada’s Jab Jabs, who incorporated folding chairs into their performance in response to the Montgomery, Alabama dock brawl earlier this year:
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Jab Molassies and dissidence have always gone hand in hand, with Carnival, itself a result of rebellion, offering valuable context.
As far as the performance at the World Trade Market goes, however, critics felt that there was a disconnect with “brand alignment,” since Tobago, in particular, has traditionally been marketed as an idyllic beach destination, targeted at the honeymoon, adventure, and eco-tourism markets. Of the two islands in the twin-isle republic, Trinidad is the one with the long-standing Carnival tradition. Tobago, however, recently created a version of the event, which now takes place each October, as part the marketing thrust for its “brand.”
Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly Farley Augustine doubled down on his defence of the island’s decision to include the Jab Molassies as part of the cultural package represented at the London travel event, which also featured steelpan music, folk dance and more modern Carnival costumes. Augustine advised the naysayers to learn more about the Jab Molassie’s proud history of rebellion, but the issue soon turned into a political tit-for-tat.
Meanwhile, on social media, the discussion continued, with alieninthecaribbean cutting straight to the chase:
“Whoever designed this cultural presentation lacked audience empathy and did not put themselves in the shoes of the people receiving this presentation at all. How can you ASSUME that foreigners will UNDERSTAND this? They do not. They do not get the CONTEXT. They do not see anything but what is directly in front of their eyes, AS IS, which is a deranged, scary-looking black man covered in paint. Whoever was the LAZY and SELF-ABSORBED person who came up with this idea, please get a CLUE. Certain aspects of our culture more than others require CONTEXT, they cannot just be extracted and presented in silos, decontextualized for people entirely unfamiliar with our culture. Jab Molassie is one of them. A beautiful Tobago Jig between two traditionally dressed characters, to a traditional folk band and drums, much less context is needed and it can presented AS IS.
Where is the SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE? I love my Trinbagonian culture, all of it, including Jab Molassie but It’s almost like someone wanted to make this EMBARRASSING for spite.”
Facebook user George Leacock posited, “Jab Molassie is not played in Tobago. Whatever you all talking about, it is not that. In Tobago we have Jab Jab and Devil!” In the post’s comments thread, he added a link for the type of Jab Jab that is played in Tobago. However, a Tobago Festivals Facebook post countered, “The Jab Molassie Character is a staple of Tobago Carnival. Adorned in devil-like attire with charcoal across their bodies, they bring life to our unique experience.”
Whether that experience is one that visitors to Tobago care to explore outside of its traditional context remains to be seen.