Walk tall, moko jumbie | Closeup

It’s one of the oldest masquerades in T&T’s Carnival, brought across the Atlantic from West Africa. The moko jumbie tradition once seemed to be dying away, but in recent years a handful of enthusiasts have created a moko jumbie revival, training hundreds of young people in the art of stilt-walking. Ray Funk investigates, and explains the power of these towering figures

  • With Port of Spain’s Central Bank towers in the background, a member of the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture shows off his stiltwalking skills. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Members of the #1000mokos group performing in downtown Port of Spain. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Moko jumbies from the Touch D Sky group join the Canboulay Riots 
re-enactment at Piccadilly Greens on the Friday before Carnival. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Jhawan Thomas portrays Peter Minshall’s controversial moko jumbie king, The Dying Swan. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Touch D Sky moko jumbies heading through Belmont to the Queen’s Park Savannah. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • A moko jumbie from the Kaisokah group shows off on Port of Spain’s Ariapita Avenue. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • A Keylemanjahro moko jumbie ties on his stilts. Photo by Maria Nunes

“Are you coming up?” they ask you at classes and workshops all over Trinidad. That’s the question — are you joining them up on sticks today, or just watching?

There is a moko jumbie revolution building momentum in T&T, with growing numbers of young people — and some parents — learning the art of stiltwalking behind this traditional Carnival masquerade. Even as other forms of traditional mas seem in decline, young people are taking to stilts and striving to touch the sky.

Almost any public event in Trinidad — from government ceremonies to corporate promotions to tourist shows — now has at least a couple of moko jumbies. During Carnival, they join every competition and every parade. In the past decade, creativity in costuming and growing acrobatic skill have led to more and more enthusiasm from the public.

A moko jumbie needs to perfect a nimble athleticism. Getting and remaining aloft require constantly shifting weight and attention. A graceful dismount is also a necessary skill. No wonder the young and limber are drawn to this revelry.

Like the eager participants in #1000mokos, a group formed by artist Joshua Lue Chee Kong and designer Kriston Chen. Since early 2017, they have met every Sunday at the Alice Yard arts space in Woodbrook, west Port of Spain. Free classes strive to get students up and comfortable on sticks, progressing to increasing heights as they leave the yard and walk through the streets to practice in local parks.

Artist and architect Michael Lee Poy, who works closely with #1000mokos, has been smitten with the moko jumbie bug for many years, having previously worked with them in Peter Minshall’s mas band and at the Cleveland Art Museum. Lee Poy builds all the #1000mokos stilts himself, experimenting with various woods and different designs and connectors. For him, moko jumbies are not just about individual athleticism and performing tricks, but about creating new possibilities in mas narratives.

 

But these are the newcomers. Other pioneers have been training moko jumbies for decades, in some of Trinidad’s poorer communities. In the north, it is Glen de Souza, better known as Dragon, who in 1986 founded a cultural yard in Cocorite, west of Port of Spain, to offer local kids a place to come after school, free from crime and drugs. Initially, Dragon’s focus was on dancing and drumming, but he soon noticed it was stilts that got the kids excited. As one parent commented, “The kids never want to come back to the ground.”

Over the years, Dragon’s Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture has trained thousands, and his yard has become the safe haven for a generation of young people. Singlehandedly, he is the person who really paved the way for many others to take the moko jumbie in different directions.

German photographer Stephan Falke became fascinated with Dragon’s work in the mid-1990s, and for seven years he travelled to Trinidad from New York City to document it. The resulting oversized book, Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad (2004), is full of stunning colour photos of the young people who answered Dragon’s call.

Overlapping with Falke’s time, Mexican-American artist Laura Anderson Barbata spent five years coming to Dragon’s yard to make costumes and help with the band in various ways. Prior to her arrival, the band wasn’t able to afford any level of costuming, and often relied on body paint, especially bright reds and blues, to stand out at Carnival. Anderson Barbata’s work with the Keylemanjahro band created stunning narratives and new possibilities, such as horse jumbies, scarlet ibis, and portrayals inspired by the Dogon of Mali.

A 2007 documentary by German director Harald Rumpf, Up and Dancing: The Magical Stilts of Trinidad, features the drama of young members of Dragon’s group as they struggle against family challenges to perform for Carnival. Keylemanjahro moko jumbies have even made an appearance on Sesame Street. All this outside support added to the exposure and interest in Dragon’s work and in moko jumbies themselves. Over the years, Dragon has faced various challenges, but he perseveres.

In south Trinidad, meanwhile, the moko jumbie catalyst is Junior Bisnath of San Fernando. After receiving some initial training from Dragon, Bisnath has gone on to train hundreds himself with his Kaisokah moko jumbie group, running since 1995. Kaisokah has an active small group hired for numerous corporate or government events. They’ve travelled to St Lucia, Zimbabwe, the UK, and Panama to perform and train. Bisnath even took a contingent of moko jumbies to the 2006 FIFA World Cup competition in Germany, with the Trinidad and Tobago national team.

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Last year, Bisnath set his eyes on a new milestone. The Guinness Book of World Records includes several stiltwalkers’ exploits. In June 2009, a total of 1,908 participants got on stilts across the globe, from the US and Canada to Brazil, Russia, and Macau, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Cirque du Soleil. And in 2011, 957 primary students in the Netherlands smashed the record for most stiltwalkers to walk one hundred metres together.

So the Kaisoca crew issued a call throughout Trinidad and Tobago to beat the record. On Sunday 10 September, 2017, they assembled over five hundred moko jumbies, including a small contingent from Grenada, at Skinner Park in San Fernando. Bisnath hopes to make this gathering an annual event, and is confident he will break the record soon, given the growing numbers of children and adults taking classes. He does hold the record, he believes, for the youngest person on stilts: his son at eleven months.

 

In 2012, Kaisokah members Adrian Young and Jonadiah Gonzales started their own moko jumbie group, Touch D Sky, based in their home village of Tarodale. They were joined by British artist Alan Vaughan, who had been coming to Trinidad for many years, and had designed Young’s king costume, The Crow, for Kaisokah earlier that year, placing fourth in the national competition. Together, they wanted to deepen and extend the traditional masquerade art form. Vaughan’s designs for the band find their inspiration in the richness of Afro-Atlantic culture, and have proven consistently stunning. He believes the costumes and characters portrayed by the moko jumbies should reflect each individual’s athletic agility, and also express an aspect of their personal qualities.

In 2015, Touch D Sky’s Stephanie Kanhai won the national Carnival Queen title, the first moko jumbie ever to do so. Since then, the band has become a force at Carnival, relocating in the weeks before the festival to temporary quarters near the Savannah stage at Granderson Lab, an arts incubation space run by the founders of Alice Yard. Individual Touch D Sky members have increasing opportunities to perform around T&T and even internationally. Young also leads and trains a new youth team, Future Jumbies, and he, Vaughan, and other members of the band have gone to teach in St Martin, Montserrat, and Dominica, to revive and strengthen the art in those islands.

But perhaps the best known individual moko jumbie performer in T&T is Jhawhan Thomas. He was one of those who grew up spending every day at Dragon’s Keylemanjahro yard, and eventually helped train younger kids. He also joined several dance companies and worked in Peter Minshall’s mas camp, and later on in designer Brian Mac Farlane’s studio. In 2007, in what many consider Mac Farlane’s finest Carnival band, India, Jhawan portrayed a stunning moko jumbie elephant. The following year he won the King of Carnival title for Mac Farlane’s band Earth, with an abstract costume called Pandemic Rage, engineered by Michael Lee Poy.

Then in 2016, just a few weeks before Carnival, Minshall — Trinidad’s most celebrated mas man — called on Thomas to dance a solo moko jumbie king controversially titled The Dying Swan: Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova. Minshall had featured various moko jumbies in past bands, and indeed his 1988 band was called Jumbie, with both king and queen on stilts. But this new Carnival king created a storm in the press and social media: Thomas performed costumed as a ballet dancer, all in white, with the stilts themselves carved to look like ballet shoes en pointe.

The Dying Swan is considered a turning point in Russian ballet. It is a short piece about the end of life, choreographed in 1905 for ballerina Anna Pavlova, to a cello solo from composer Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. It became her signature piece, which she performed over four thousand times. Pavlova’s equally celebrated contemporary, Vaslav Nijinsky, was never known to have done The Dying Swan.

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On stage, Thomas performed ballet moves on stilts, imagining one of the great male Russian ballet dancers in the most famous role of one of his female contemporaries, with the addition of Rastafarian dreads, and the transfer of the music to steelpan. It was unlike anything ever seen at Trinidad Carnival. Filmmaker Christopher Laird’s short film of it is a remarkable record of a tradition turned on its head.

 

Around the world, stiltwalking has been going on for thousands of years, and its origins are shrouded in the mists of history. Stiltwalkers are depicted on ancient Greek and Pre-Colombian pottery, and reports from Asia and the Central American Popol Vuh narrative go far back as well. In some places, stilts were simply an efficient mode of transport, especially in hilly or swampy terrain. In nineteenth-century France, sheep herders used them to keep track of their flocks. From these practical uses, stiltwalking became a standard feature in circuses and other public entertainments around the globe.

Caribbean moko jumbies are traced to West African roots that stretch back centuries, brought over the Atlantic in slave ships. (Or, as some say, the moko jumbies walked across the Atlantic following the ships.) The masquerade’s very name has West African origins. Scholar Robert Nichols has recorded the history of moko jumbies across Africa, largely in sacred functions, often secret societies. They were completely covered in masks, hats, and gloves, so their identities remained hidden.

There are historical reports of moko jumbies throughout the Caribbean, and they survive in limited numbers in many countries. Nichols reports the earliest known Caribbean reference at a 1791 Christmas event with “a masked moko jumbie roaming the streets accompanied by musicians.” In Trinidad, John Cowley notes a newspaper report from the 1890s of stilt dancers stalking “through the streets to the strains of drum and fife.” In 1956, Dan Crowley described Trinidad moko jumbies as having brightly painted skirts and satin or velvet jackets, and peaked hats with feathers — but they were “virtually extinct.” And Trinidad’s great dancer and choreographer Geoffrey Holder, who used moko jumbies in his 1978 Broadway musical Timbuktu, recalled: “I will never forget, as a child, being frightened and awed by these gigantic, masked spectres wandering the streets after the parade.”

In many parts of the Caribbean, moko jumbies survive primarily as part of folklore presentations and tourist shows. Beyond Trinidad, they currently have a strong presence in the Virgin Islands, with Wilfred John of St Croix as a missionary in their cause for forty years. John runs the Guardians of Culture moko jumbies, who appear weekly at local hotels, and made a 2009 documentary called Mokolution tracing the roots of the tradition in the Virgin Islands. John notes a long tradition of male jumbies dressing in skirts with petticoats or bloomers, which changed in the 1960s when teacher Ali Paul moved to welcome women as jumbies, leading to costumes in other styles. John continues to work with schools to get more young people to take up the art, exploring ever more adventurous choreography.

Today’s moko jumbie practitioners, in T&T and elsewhere, are working not just at preserving cultural heritage, but broadening and deepening what is possible, from choreography to design. They are offering young people, from both under-served communities and more middle-class backgrounds, opportunities to develop athletic ability and artistic skills, while building confidence and self-esteem. Junior Bisnath’s motto — painted on the side of his home — summarises the ethos: “Say yes to life, get high on stilts!”

 

Moko jumbies to the world

Like many other element of culture, moko jumbies have followed the T&T diaspora around the world. In New York City, a few individuals and small groups have performed at Labour Day Carnival and related events for decades. In recent years, the primary band has been the Brooklyn Jumbies formed in the 1990s by Ali Sylvester, inspired by Dragon in Trinidad, and working with Najja Codrington from Barbados, who had gone to Senegal for moko jumbie training. The Brooklyn Jumbies worked hard to develop a batch of dancers from all over the Caribbean diaspora. Now that Sylvester has moved to Orlando, Florida, he’s starting a new troupe there. They explore both African and Caribbean traditions, and have performed and trained in Singapore, Japan, China, the UK, and Costa Rica. Not long ago, a contingent went with the Something Positive dance troupe to Morocco.

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Laura Anderson Barbata, after her experience in Trinidad, sought out the Brooklyn Jumbies, and has been working closely with them in a series of projects that have taken them beyond the NYC West Indian community. In 2007, Anderson Barbata launched the exhibition Jumbie Camp at an art gallery in Chelsea in Manhattan. Moko jumbie costumes were transformed into sculptures for the show, and the Brooklyn Jumbies paraded on the nearby streets.

The following year, Anderson Barbata and Najja Codrington of the Brooklyn Jumbies went to Oaxaca, Mexico, where they connected with a traditional stiltwalking group there, Los Zancudos de Zaachila. In 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street protests were at their height, Anderson Barbata staged her Intervention: Wall Street, for which she created giant oversize business suits for the Brooklyn Jumbies. Together they rambled through New York’s Financial District handing out gold-foil-covered chocolate coins, drawing worldwide press attention.

Another recent project in September 2016, Anderson Barbata’s Intervention Indigo was a Carnival-style performance that combined dance, music, costuming, procession, and protest. Moko jumbies hit the streets of the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn dressed in traditional indigo-dyed fabric, echoing African traditions from the Dogon culture. Anderson Barbata has also worked closely with choreographer Chris Walker at the University of Wisconsin, who had a number of solo pieces on stilts at his October 2017 show Unmasked.

San Fernando’s Kaisokah also has a US branch, founded by Trinidadian Jason Edwards, who trained under Junior Bisnath, and two friends. Since 2010, they have run after-school programmes in Brooklyn and Newark, New Jersey. They have participated in Kiddies Carnival in Brooklyn (last year, with all the girls costumed as butterflies and all the boys as dragonflies) and the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. They’ve performed at events of all kinds — birthday parties, weddings, political rallies, and even the funeral of a prince from Nigeria.

The Universoul Circus, which started in 1994 and travels the United States, reflects black culture through circus arts. For many years, it has featured both limbo dancers and moko jumbies from Trinidad, offering perhaps the only full-time professional work available for practitioners. They hold auditions in Trinidad to get the most accomplished from various groups.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, Canada, moko jumbies have featured in the work of the Swizzlestick Theatre, formed back in 1997, growing out of the theatre and performance work of Christopher Pinheiro. Having worked in Minshall’s mas camp in Trinidad, and seeing moko jumbies as part of a Caribbean aesthetic that could be universal, Pinheiro has been involved in two decades of Carnival and other performances, major theatre events, and lots of workshops.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is little history of moko jumbies at London’s Notting Hill or other West Indian Carnival celebrations in Britain, but that is gradually changing. Touch D Sky’s popularity in T&T has led to an offshoot based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne run by Alan Vaughan, together with some of the Trinidadian team. They run workshops and now perform with the Elimu Mas Academy for Notting Hill. This year, Vaughan and Adrian Young developed performances working with contemporary dancers, an art performance called The Isle Is Full of Noises (based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest), and, in collaboration with choreographer Martin Hylton, the performance work My Knowledge Increase, My Memories Reflect, a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Civil Rights Movement.

In 2016, Zak Ové, a British artist of Trinidadian heritage, was commissioned by the British Museum to build two moko jumbie sculptures, seven metres tall, mounted in the museum’s entrance hall in conjunction with an African art exhibit. It was timed with Notting Hill Carnival, and members of Touch D Sky performed at the opening. The sculptures were ultimately chosen for the museum’s permanent collection.