Catching the Carnival Jumbie

Trinidad's Kilimanjaro School revives an old tradition and helps youngsters reach amazing heights

  • At Carnival, moko jumbies transform the Queen's Park Savannah stage into their own "big yard". Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • With wings, they become etheral. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • The "posse" takes time out. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • Footsore. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • Costumes drying in the sun. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • For a moko jumbie, the simplest way to get up and come down is with the help of human hands. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • J'Ouvert. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • A family portrait. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • Climbing into the sky. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • From school's end to bedtime, yard practice doesn't stop. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • From school's end to bedtime, yard practice doesn't stop. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • The Kilimanjaro School is home to many different dragons. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • The beginnings of a masquerade. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • The stilts are all made and repaired in the Yard. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • A "dancing spirit" prepares to soar. Photograph  by Stefan Falke
  • There are many stages to preparing the stilts. Here, shoes are about to be glued on. Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • "Encouragement is all they need," says "Dragon". Photograph by Stefan Falke
  • "Where did I leave my stilts?" Photograph by Stefan Falke

Trinidad’s Kilimanjaro School

Waving water pistols and flags, they race through the streets, scrambling against one another, covered with paint, wearing masks, and, if not dancing, then embracing the tops of lamp-posts for support. I’ve seen them hop on one leg, jigging to the sounds of soca, temporarily defying gravity. But today they look different, more like the kids they actually are.

I’m visiting “Dragon’s” yard, watching youngsters being transformed into giant figures. To my right, under a shed roofed with corrugated iron sheets, a boy inspects a multitude of stilts arrayed along the wall. He stands there, finger to mouth, excited and fearless. “Boy, how high today?” he whispers. Above me, leaning comfortably against the roof, a girl no more than 10 years old giggles at her friend 12 feet below, rushing to get her feet into shoes glued to the sturdy stilts. Closer to ground level, another girl on training stilts reaches out for the encouraging grasp of Glen “Dragon” De Souza — teacher of these effervescent moko jumbies.

This is the Kilimanjaro School of Art and Culture, in Cocorite, west of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Fourteen years ago, in this economically deprived suburb with few activities for youngsters, the school revived the almost forgotten Carnival tradition of the moko jumbie, or stilt-walker, to provide distraction and safety from the temptations around them.

Described in stories as guardians and “dancing spirits”, moko jumbies first appeared in West Africa centuries ago, where they were known as protectors of villages. Their towering height, the story goes, warded off evil spirits, and provided advance warning of approaching danger.

Slavery brought the tradition to Trinidad, where colonialism’s battle against African religious customs almost destroyed them. Yet this proved unexpectedly difficult. Here is proof of that failure: the moko jumbies have returned.

The original context was disguised when slaves transformed the moko jumbies from religious custom to masquerade characters at Carnival and Christmas fetes. There they were, year after year, dancing in the streets, brightly painted, wearing hats and skirts, feathers and masks. With the advent of overhead electricity cables their existence was once again endangered. But today, moko jumbies have mapped the perils of the modern city; they are a regular feature at Trinidad-style carnivals around the world (though getting insurance in the US is a constant problem!).

Yet “Dragon” didn’t bring back the moko jumbie just to play mas. He intended them to protect the spirits of the kids in his neighbourhood, by providing a means and a place to keep them off the street and away from urban evils like drugs and crime. He saw a way to make the diluted spiritual power of the moko jumbie a forceful presence once more: he realised they could guard his “village”.

The Kilimanjaro School has over 100 members, from age three and up, and students from other schools around the country are welcome to visit and participate. All budding jumbies learn on training stilts a couple of feet high, and literally move upwards over the following months, some to beyond 15 feet. They rarely fall and soon master the art with regular practice, graduating to one-legged dance moves in a matter of months. The stilts are made and repaired by “Dragon himself” — up to six new sets can be completed in a day, some a combination of steel and wood, others just plain wood.

Floodlights in the yard alongside huge speakers jamming mean the moko jumbies and their teacher are jigging late into the night. It’s a positive, hopeful scene. The local residents welcome the return of the “dancing spirits”, not just to play mas, but also to guard and protect their villages once again.

Dylan Kerrigan



J’Ouvert, meaning “day open”, is the official beginning of the Carnival celebrations, and a party to top all others. The revelry starts long before dawn on Carnival Monday morning and lasts well into daylight.

J’Ouvert is about release and the inversion of conventional social norms. People cover themselves in mud and paint, delighting in the mess, dancing in its contradiction. Men dress as women and women as men, while others wear nappies or real cow horns, and suck on babies’ pacifiers. These ironic characters, alongside traditional blue devils, midnight robbers and badly behaved sailors, originally represented the marginalised people of society, those outside convention. Today, though, most “mudders” are just out to have a wild time while normal life is temporarily on hold.

Some simple advice: wear old clothes, leave your jewellery and valuables at home, move in a J’Ouvert band with a group of friends, and be prepared to shed your inhibitions. Do this, and J’Ouvert can be one of the most enjoyable adventures of a lifetime.

Playin’ Mas

Joining a section in a Carnival band is easy to do. You can check out costumes in person at the 40 or so mas camps located throughout Trinidad, or, alternatively, register online — many bands now have websites. Costume themes vary from year to year. In 2003, expect among others the excitement of The Strip (in Harts’ Las Vegas-themed presentation) and the beauty of Fleurs de Passion (from the ever-popular Poison), or let yourself be Bedazzled (courtesy of Legends).

Colours, fabrics, headpieces and the degree of flesh on show differ among bands and sections, but the essential Carnival experience is the same, whoever you play with. Whether you choose the all-inclusive sections with bar trucks and food, or choose the less expensive “costume only” option, it won’t matter — being part of the spectacle itself is what it’s all about.

Some popular Carnival websites:

  • Barbarossa
  • Funtasia
  • Harts
  • Legends
  • Masquerade
  • Poison
  • Callaloo Company
  • Mudders International
  • Rosalind Gabriel
  • 3 Canal

Move to the music

Whether it’s the sweet “chinkin” of pan, the salacious lyrics of soca, or the calypsonians’ social “picong”, Carnival delivers an endless flow of “riddems”.

With Christmas out of the way, soca music, the contagious, waist-trembling sound of Carnival fetes and soundtrack to Carnival Monday and Tuesday, begins to saturate the airwaves. Infectious rhythms, naughty lyrics, and wicked political jibes are the norm — you’ll be singing these tunes well into next year.

The steel pan is showcased at the annual Panorama competition, where bands from all over the country, some with more than a hundred players, do battle for the champion’s title. “Prelims” take place at panyards across T&T, with judges moving from yard to yard, crowd in tow. The running order and listings are carried in the daily newspapers. Panorama semi-finals and finals take place on the Grandstand stage at Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Savannah.

Calypso is about laughter and stinging social commentary. Calypsonians like Cro Cro, Chalkdust, Sugar Aloes and the Mighty Sparrow woo audiences with a combination of hilarious double entendre and succinct political insight, painting a sophisticated and honest portrait of modern Trinidad and Tobago society in the process. For a great night out, visit one of the calypso tents — they open in January and listings are carried in the local press.

Home for Carnival

Nazma Muller tries to work up enough energy for a true Trini Carnival experience

Ah come back home to Trinidad
In February, when Trinis gone mad —
Just a lil three weeks’ rest
From de cold of London west.
I know is Carnival time,
So ah brace meself for non-stop lime.

Months now meh skin bawling
For hot sun and a good sweating,
Under the two duvet is shiver for so,
I blue with cold, from nose to toe.
Talk ’bout cuss and moan —
Oh God, I want to go home.

Touch down in de hot sunshine,
Ready to go and bust a wine.
PSA, Wasa, oh God, and Brass!
All dem fete, Lawd, is real ole mas.
Just what dis poor Trini need:
Some Bajan soca at high speed.

Sam say, “We hadda go tent,
To hear dem kaisonians vent.”
“Not me and pay fete,” she say,
“For $300? Dem could go dey way.
Wine free all over de place,
And I have licence for dis waist.”

But heaven help me, what is dis?
Three years of de ting I miss.
Only winter in meh tail,
Even in summer is hail!
But now, bacchanal time, I ent able —
Before a week pass I in trouble.

Is panyard lime every night,
In Phase II everybody tight.
If it ent Carib or rum and Coke,
Is nuff a what Bob smoke.
But midnight my eye start to close,
Renegades jamming and I in a doze.

“Girl, what happen to you?
Is English you turn for true!”
Dey give me talk for so,
I hadda protest, “Hell, no!
I could still fete with de best
Is just . . . just . . . I need a lil rest.”

“Rest? What you feel it is at all?
Is time to taylaylay and have a ball!
Put on your clothes for me, please,
Oil up de waist and rub up de knees.
Tonight, tonight we going and party,
And who cyah make ain’t Trini!”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.