A natural high
The masked stilt-walking dancers of Trinidad, known as moko jumbies, form an integral part of Carnival celebrations. In West Africa, stilt-walking masquerade dancers are sacred village guardians who form a bridge between the ancestral spirit world and that of our earthly present. They ensure that discipline is maintained and traditions upheld, and help heal the sick or troubled. Encountering them in altered form as moko jumbies at Trinidad Carnival is living proof of African cultural survival in the New World.
Although they were scarce at Carnival for several decades, a revival in recent years has seen the moko jumbies reclaim their prominence, thanks largely to the efforts of Glen “Dragon” deSouza, who founded the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture in Cocorite, a have-not community on Port of Spain’s western border. His moko jumbie camp, known as Dragon’s Yard, is home to the island’s most renowned young stilt-walkers, most from families whose lives are circumscribed by poverty.
Up & Dancing: The Magic Stilts of Trinidad is a captivating short film shot in and around Dragon’s Yard. This documentary feature, lovingly made by German director Harald Rumpf, has many strengths, of which the most notable is the strong first-hand testimony Rumpf has coaxed from Dragon, his wife Luanna, and an assistant called “Trouble.” Indeed, as Dragon is typically a man of few words, getting illuminating material from him on camera must have taken considerable effort. The main body of the film follows the trials and tribulations of Akini Parris, a young contender for King of the Children’s Carnival, whose attempt at glory is affected by his family’s impoverished circumstances. Because Akini’s father is largely absent, he often has to care for his younger brother, meaning he is unable to give the moko jumbie practice his undivided attention.
The film has excellent footage of the stilt-walkers working their magic, doing acrobatics from on high in time to the exhilarating rhythms of soca, but one drawback is its intrusive narration. The text (the film was made in English) is read in a particularly wooden manner, sounding particularly corny when focusing on Akini, while a few interviews have muted dialogue, possibly due to budgetary constraints. Additionally, subtitles would help foreign audiences not versed in Trini dialect. However, such quibbles are ultimately minor, because this little gem of a film is certainly worth investigating, as it gives a good sense of life at Dragon’s Yard and the overarching significance of the moko jumbies.
Documentary, Trinidad & Tobago 2007. Unrated (language and some nudity). 38 minutes. Produced, shot, edited and directed by Walt Lovelace. Music by jointpop. Sound engineering by Ryan Agostini
Jointpop, Trinidad’s leading rock ‘n’ roll band, has had far more media attention showered on its third full-length album, The January Transfer Window (released September 2007), than on any of its predecessors. Unfortunately, as was the case with the seminal Port of Spain Style and Exile, Baby CDs (and the band’s greatest hits package, The Bess of jointpop, as well as its five-song EP, Football Boots) practically none of that attention has come from Trinidad’s half-dozen rock-oriented radio stations.
Thankfully, however, the visual aspect of jointpop’s January Transfer Window has not been neglected, if only because of one man who has been working in both film and alternative and mainstream music video for the last 20 years. Cameraman/director Walt Lovelace, eldest son of writer Earl (author of Salt and The Dragon Can’t Dance) and older brother of artist Che, is also a longtime friend of jointpop bandleader Gary Hector; and when Walt heard that Gary and the rest of the band (lead guitarist Damon Homer, drummer Dion Camacho, bassist Jerome Girdharrie and, for the first time since the band began recording, keyboardist Phil Hill, as well as sound engineer Ryan Agostini) were recording the new album at a beach house in Mayaro, on Trinidad’s east coast, Walt invited himself and his camera along for the trip.
And what a trip it was. Imagine The Last Waltz without a shooting schedule and you’re almost there.
The 38-minute DVD, titled Desperate Houseflies after one of the album’s strongest tracks (so far available mixed only in stereo sound) captures the brass tacks of the recording experience and some of its frills. Lovelace manages to extract remarkably candid interviews from the band members (given that he was actually shooting them while grilling them). Hector’s confessional explanation of the autobiographical nature of Desperate Houseflies—he’s the one washing, washing, washing the blues away (and putting the clean clothes into cupboards when he’s done) or Camacho’s glorious one-liner dismissal of Lovelace himself—“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, I thought the least he would do is &%&$ cook”—almost transform Lovelace’s fly on the wall into a shrink on the couch. The film also features some terrific performance footage capturing all the excitement of Hector, a genuine rock ‘n’ roll frontman, who seems to be snaking all over a stage even while standing still in front of a microphone, and Homer, a man demonstrably born to play guitar under a spotlight.
The only valid criticism of Desperate Houseflies is that it should have been longer. We should all suffer the same put-down of our work.