As the sun rose over Talbot Avenue, Fifi George, “Queen of the Jabs,” covered herself in black paint, started to dance and beckoned a truck full of drummers forward.
Behind the truck spread a twisting crowd, hundreds of people draped in Caribbean flags, blowing whistles and horns, and sending puffs of pastel powder into the air above them.
J’ouvert had begun.
The annual early-morning celebration marks the beginning of carnival, which continues Saturday afternoon with the Caribbean parade. J’ouvert, which means “dawn” or “daybreak”, is a slow-moving parade in which some participants wear headpieces with horns and masks, cover themselves with black paint and oil and and dance down Talbot to Blue Hill Avenue, all the way to Columbia Road.
“It’s a blessing; it’s what I love,” George said as she and the King of the Jabs pressed againts each other at the front. “Jab jab -- it’s a tradition, we pass it generation to generation.”
Jab comes from the French Creole word for devil, and revelers drape themselves in chains and cover themselves in paint -- and smear it on each other.
“If you’re not dirty, it’s not J’ouvert,” laughed one woman whose arms were covered.
The morning’s celebration was boisterous but peaceful, and police on scene were pleased with how many families turned out.
“We want a peaceful day; we want a peaceful night,” said Boston police Superintendent-in-Chief William G. Gross.
J’ouvert traditionally follows an all-night party, and spurts of violence have been associated with the celebrations in the past, more connected to the parties than the event itself. Gross said that this year police had identified several large house parties and shut them down before they got out of hand.
Behind the trucks carrying drummers, celebrants were shimmying and grinding, some wearing helmets with enormous curling horns and carrying buckets of paint.
Jamal Clarke, who traveled from Brooklyn for the event, wound through the crowd in a red cape, ducking low and pretending to read from a book he was carrying upside down. His hands -- and all the words -- were covered in paint. After he delivered a playful incantation to a reporter, another man turned and said, “Some things are gonna grow for you. Your career, your life, your booty!”
Clarke said he loves J’ouvert because it’s a celebration of island culture, and a chance to play fantastical parts. He brought the book because he’s a teacher in real life -- but at J’ouvert he’s something fantastical. Around him spun men shining in black paint and women in revealing outfits and masks.
As the crowd turned onto Blue Hill Avenue, 3-year-old Tyler -- “Baby Jab,” his dad said-- sat in a red wagon with a Grenadian flag and waved while his older brother, 10-year-old Jamari -- “Young Jab” -- carried a suitcase marked “stupid money.”
“We got it in case we need it!” His mother, Stephanie -- Mommy Jab -- exclaimed.
“While they’re playing bad, we’re playing jab,” said his father, Jason (“Daddy Jab”). “One love.”