Island Beat (November/December 1996)

News from around the islands

Skywalkers in Trinidad

Carnival Tuesday afternoon, 1996. Two unseasonal afternoon showers have drenched the Carnival city, Port of Spain; overcast skies threaten more rain, but the music still rocks the streets. Masqueraders and spectators seeking shelter in Memorial Park, near the main Carnival stage, blend into one big party.

Under the dripping trees at one corner of the park, pairs of eight-foot stilts are laid out; youngsters clad in shorts and skimpy tops put their feet into the shoes glued to the platforms, strap themselves in, and scramble upright, using the gnarled and slippery tree trunks as props. Then they start painting themselves, dipping hands and brushes into pots of silver to daub thick gobs over hair, face, torso, legs. As the paint dries, they stroll around high above the crowd, adding a skirt here, a headpiece there, leaving sinkholes in the muddy grass.

Later, they are on stage in the vanguard of Peter Minshall’s band Song of the Earth, whose theme is an aboriginal story of creation. These 12-feet-tall, silver-garbed stilt-walkers have metamorphosed into Sky Gods, showering the stage with handfuls of confetti.

Moko Jumbies — stiltmen — are practising an ancient African art; they are one of the more magical transformations of the Carnival, and one of its most honoured traditions. You might see them uncostumed in the yard where they practise — standing on one stilt and throwing the other backward or sky high — or on the Carnival stage as silver Sky Gods, or as menacing all-black vultures against the backdrop of the banking district in the heart of commercial Port of Spain, or striding into the sunset down some busy thoroughfare. Instinctively, you pray that one won’t fall out of the sky in front of you.

Many of these young performers prancing skyscraper-tall and godlike — teenagers or younger — are dwarfed by their stilts. Moko jumbles were an important feature of old-time Trinidad Carnival, but were almost forgotten until Glen De  Souza, better known as Dragon, revived the art through his Keylemanjaro School of Arts and Culture in Cocorite, on the  western outskirts of Port of Spain. His students start as young as two. They might begin 12 inches off the ground, wearing well-fitting shoes glued to pitchpine poles,  but soon they graduate to six-, eight- or ten-foot stilts; and the younger they are,  the more confident and fearless they seem  to be.

To become a moko jumble, you register as a member of Dragon’s troupe, and pay a weekly fee. Once a moko jumbie, always a moko jumbie. Though most of his members are Trinidadian, he has also trained Canadians who have taken their skills to Toronto’s Caribana.

Their fame is spreading: the Keylemanjaro moko jumbies, with the calypsonian SuperBlue, were featured earlier this year in segments of the Children’s Television Workshop’s Sesame Street.

– Pat Ganase



The Still of the Night

Quiet night of quiet stars, Quiet chords from my guitar, Floating on the silence that surrounds us. . . These lyrics, translated from the song Corcovado by Carlos Jobin, neatly evoke the experience of watching stars in a tropical sky. When the “seeing” is good and the sky is really dark — power cuts can have their advantages! — tropical stars look like silver fruit waiting to be picked, and the whole panorama of the heavens can be enjoyed, from the lop-sided Southern Cross in the south to the Pole Star shining above the northern horizon.

Caribbean skies are particularly brilliant in the first quarter of the year, when backyard astronomers in the north shiver at the eyepiece, envious of places that allow night-time gazing in a short-sleeved shirt.

Amateur astronomers worldwide form a fraternity only too glad to welcome fellow enthusiasts with open arms and quickly-assembled telescopes. Contact has been greatly enhanced by e-mail, through which astronomical events, seen from different locations, can he reported almost as they occur.

Enthusiasts visiting Trinidad and Tobago should make contact with the Trinidad and Tobago Astronomical Society (P.O. Box 146, UWI Post Office, St Augustine; e-mail:, which houses its telescopes at the University of the West Indies. The Society, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1996, organises talks and video shows, monthly meetings, observing sessions, and astronomy courses for members and the general public. Members give TV and radio interviews when astronomy is in the news and write articles in the local press — they become a “hotline” for star queries.

Those queries! I remember my husband’s disbelief when the phone rang and I got out of bed at 1.30 one morning to identify a “strange, bright, orange star which had suddenly appeared in the western sky”. Pushing away puzzled dogs, I looked up to see Mars and went inside to reassure the caller that we were not being invaded from outer space. I gently mentioned the time (now 1.45 a.m.). “It dat late, eh!” asked my informant. “But I just had to call you!”

The Society publishes two issues of Astro News each year and has successfully published two books, Trinidadian Skies and the more comprehensive Tropical Skies. These were so well received that both have sold out — we are considering a second edition of Tropical Skies. We have also had visits from renowned astronomers: Carl Sagan gave a talk, and so did Dr Fred Whipple, who is famous for calling a comet a “dirty snowball.” He was one of several visitors who came to Trinidad on the Stella Solaris to see Halley’s Comet from a favourable location — the Society hosted 300 eager Americans who lined up to see the comet through our telescopes.

We were also well placed in Trinidadian skies for viewing Comet Hale Bopp as a bright, naked-eye object.

The society welcomes visiting amateur astronomers to its “astronomical lime” on the UWI rooftop.

– Maura Imbert

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