History is replete with examples of the outstanding African woman, who not only cared for their family, she ruled nations with justice, fortitude and wisdom. Moreover, she consorted with her husband and had singular prominence and power. Back then, women like Queen Amanireras of the Candace line in Ethiopia took command of her army and rode at the head of her troops against the Romans. Another woman, Queen Nzinga of Angola continued in the tradition of resistance to struggle against Portuguese colonialism. These women were warriors and are the genesis from with the jamette of Trinidad and Tobago emerged.
A recent article in a Caribbean magazine defines “jamette” as “…comes from the patois, diameter meaning someone from the fringes, socially unacceptable person.” On the other hand, Dr. Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool describes jamette as “working class who participate in Carnival.”
But the most colorful description comes in part from a Trinidad & Tobago dictionary and offers, “the jamette was the real stargirl of Carnival.”
Her roots are in the gayelle. Around 1881, it was the place where stick fighters met and fought, especially in the capital, Port of Spain. There she supported and cared for her fighting batonnair man. Resourcefully, she carried pelau, rum, bandages as well as bottles and stones in her pretty basket. These supplies, she used to attend to her fighting man or King as he was often called. So when the stick fighting era was over, she transferred her skills and dedication to the men of the steelbands during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
A senior Casablanca founder remembers her as “caring and providing comfort to the panmen when they were arrested and jailed.” The jamettes were freedom fighters, displaying what Earle Lovelace calls, “the essence of the Emancipation period.” They were an affront to the ruling class. To early panmen and steelbands who, as a group, were stigmatized by the society, they were dedicated and dynamic. They cooked for the men, upkept the band, played mas and when necessary, engaged in fights for their man. Trinidad folklore suggests that most steelband clashes were over a woman. Could it be a jamette?
Jamettes took care of business. They were the hostesses and protector of the panyard. They knew all the band members and the surrounding community. A well-known tuner from Invaders recalls as a boy of eight, “jamettes waving flag for the band.” Flag waving requires many special skills. Jamettes were skillful flag wavers.
Among the names of jamettes, few are known. There was Princess from Belmont and “The Creeper” from Oxford Street. According to one source, “The Creeper would become friendly with the turnkey to get food and cigarettes to her panman when he was jailed.” No one knew how she did it, but she found a way. Hell Yard and Bar 20 steelbands had girls like “Chila or Jean, nice looking, like Helen of Troy,” said the old panman, smiling.
The question is, where would the steelbands of Trinidad & Tobago be today, were it not for the invaluable support of the jamettes? These unheralded women, most of whom will never know, deserve our appreciation for their sterling contribution to the birth and development of the steelpan art form.
To meet them in the spirit as they permeate the atmosphere of Carnival, follow this route. From the first steel of J’Ouvert, throughout the afternoon journey to Victoria Square, up to the Savannah and Las’ Lap in St. James, is jamette essentials chipping down the road, the real stargirls of Carnival.
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