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J'ouvert is celebrated on many islands, including Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Sint Maarten, Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. It is also a feature of New York City's West Indian Day Parade held on Labor Day, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and Notting Hill Carnival in London, both areas that have a large Caribbean ex-pat communities.
Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by French settlers in 1783, a time of slavery. Banned from the masquerade balls of the French, the slaves would stage their own mini-carnivals in their backyards — using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating and sometimes mocking their masters’ behavior at the masquerade balls.
The origins of street parties associated with J'ouvert coincide with the emancipation from slavery in 1838. Emancipation provided Africans with the opportunity, to not only participate in Carnival, but to embrace it as an expression of their newfound freedom. Some theorize that some J'ouvert traditions are carried forward in remembrance of civil disturbances in Port of Spain, Trinidad, when the people smeared themselves with oil or paint to avoid being recognized.
The traditions of J'ouvert vary widely throughout the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, a part of the tradition involves smearing paint, mud or oil on the bodies of participants known as "Jab Jabs". On the islands of Dominica, Saint Lucia, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin and Haiti, participants celebrate by blowing flutes and conch shells or by beating Goat skinned drums, irons or bamboo sticks while singing folk songs.