Monday 8 August 2011

Jamette Society

La Vida Loca behind the Bridge

We associate barrack yards and the jamette society with the history

of east Port-of-Spain. But Carnival aficionados know: there is more, mucho more to historical Laventille!

As night falls in the city of Port-of-Spain, its eastern reaches seem to have flowed down from the hillsides and to have settled into the flat lands that stretch south and west to the sea. The full moon rises over it, making the impression of a ‘liquid Christmas tree’ even more spectacular.

In the hard light of day, however, this illusion vanishes. Laventille, as the eastern hills are known, might have gotten its name from the ‘levanter’, as the Spaniards called the wind that came from the eastern Mediterranean, bringing with it the smell of the deserts in the Levant. Very old houses, shacks, yards, disused quarries, winding lanes, steep steps - all these represent another side of life which was always very different from the lifestyle lived by those who inhabit the hills to the north and the west of the city.

The East Dry River was a creation of the last Spanish Governor Don José Maria Chacon. Before his governance in 1784 - 1797, it was known as the Rio Tragarete or Rio Santa Ana, and it ran its course as far as the hospice on Observatory Street, turned west and ran across Park Street, along Frederick Street, across Woodford Square and along Chacon Street into the sea.

Causing much damage through flooding in the rainy season, the river was deviated in 1787 to its present course. Governor Woodford widened its bed in 1817.

In those days, the hills of Laventille were covered in thick woods. A few freed slaves lived there, hunting and collecting firewood.

The first major infrastructural change took place in 1783, when Don Cosmo Charruca had an observatory built in the hills. A road needed to be constructed along the ridge leading to it - Observatory Street. It was here where the first meridian of the New World was established by the Spanish astronomer. Charruca’s building is now called Fort Chacon. A few years later, another fort, called St. David’s Tower or Fort Picton, was built a quarter of a mile to the west of it.

In 1795 the Masonic Lodge, ‘Les Frères Unis’ (United Brothers) was established at Mount Moria. It is still located in there.

By the 1820s, Rose Hill Estate was established by Edward Jackson in the area opposite to Park Street. When slavery was abolished in 1834, many of the freed slaves found refuge in Laventille’s forested hillsides. By the 1840s, these were joined by a large number of Africans who had been liberated as a result of action taken by Britain again foreign slave ships to suppress the slave trade north of the equator. Africans from many tribes settled in Laventille, among them were Mandingo, Ibo, Yoruba and Krumen. The entire area was for many years called ‘Free Town’.

For years, the only existing bridge across the Dry River consisted of a few planks at the crossing at Cadiz Road. The boys who had built it would extract a penny from any pedestrian who would use the bridge at his or her own risk. Later, the first real bridge was built at this spot, called ‘McCarthy’s Bridge’.

The inhabitants of Laventille retained West African customs to a considerable degree. Being comprised of several barrack yards along (sometimes secret) religious or tribal lines, there were many gangs or bands. These bands were devoted to singing and dancing, and their rivalries often led to feuds and open fighting. There were wakes, dances and religious ceremonies accompanied by big drums, chac chac and banjoes.

In 1865 it was reported that a serious street battle had taken place between two factions of women - the ‘Mousselins’ and the ‘Don’t Care Damns’. Other bands were called ‘Immaculate Conception’ or the terrible ‘Beka Boys’, who had the awful habit of tossing foul-smelling bits of cloth in the faces of respectable women!

The streets of east Port-of-Spain came to be known as the ‘French Shores’, and those who inhabited them were known as jamettes (from French ‘diamètre’). The term referred to those outside the circle (the ‘diameter’) of polite society. In the eyes of the colonial government, the jamette society was outrageous, vulgar and obscene. There were famous whores, bad johns, panders, touts, chantwells, stickfighters, thieves and murderers. It is from this social matrix that such present-day institutions like the steelband and many aspects of Carnival and calypso sprang.

Jamette Society

Jamettes (female):

Darling Dan, Ling Mama, Mossie Millie, Ocean Lizzie, Piti Belle Lily, Sybil Steele, Alice Sugar, Cariso Jane

Jamettes (male):

Cutaway Rimbeau, Shiffer Brathwaite, Jo-Jo, Thunderstone, Surisima the Carib,

‘Djab se yo neg, me Die se nomla bla’ - song of the stickfighters used to ‘deaden’ the skin

A little more than a century ago, the festival of carnival in Port-of-Spain was firmly in the hands of the jamette society. During the canboulay parades, stickfighters or batonniers came out on Saturday night, and as the people gathered into bands, they fought with ‘bois’, whips and words. Lead by chantwels, the bands carried lighted torches, and drummed away on goatskin drums, as well as produced the eerie sounds of tamboo-bamboo.

The higher classes of Trinidad - white and coloured - were appalled by the ‘disgusting gestures, bad songs, women wearing men’s clothes and vice versa’ of the jamette carnival.

Comment on the Birth of the Steelband by Albert "Bertie" Gomes

“The second World War saw the birth of the ‘steel band’. It was both an innovation in musical expression and a social explosion in Trinidad. It also provided an unparalleled instance of Puritan humbug. It would be impossible to trace the origins of the steel bands. These must always remain shrouded in mystery and a subject of endless speculation - all things considered, a not surprising genesis for this musical aberration and gimcrack orchestration whose romantic odyssey spans an arc of picaresque adventure that began in the slum areas of Port-of-Spain, recently reached Cape Kennedy, and is still orbiting. The actual mechanics of its emergence seem to me unimportant.”

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