Stilt walking has its roots in the African Moco Jumbie

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday June 19 2013 in Opinion
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I recently saw a White female student, the centre of attraction at a street festival in small town Ontario.


Gracious and graceful, she was surrounded by onlookers, congregating mere feet away from live bands and performers already on stage. Small children, googly-eyed, were dragging parents to her. Also, patrons and merchants, too taken watching, paused over hot-dogs, hamburgers and humongous fries.


She was on stilts.


To be a “conscious Black man” in North America is to be faced almost daily with circumstances which, as my mother – Rest In Peace – might have said, “Would try the very soul of an archangel”.


What, I reflected, did this student know of the history on which she strutted? Did she know of the resurrection of stilt walking in Trinidad after decades of neglect there; a resurrection initiated by a Canadian?


Did she know of its relationship with slavery; like the drum, also banned by slave owners? Did she know the family of iconic relations to which it belongs in carnivals from Portuguese Brazil to French Louisiana to bilingual Ontario? Did she know of its original name, Moko, and of what its manifestation spoke?


Did she know how one pair of these, strategically used by a Montreal busker, spawned a billion-dollar Canadian theatrical corporation? Knowing of these, had she from respect to our culture, tried explaining to her admirers, would they remain as interested?


During this summer, wherever one travels in Ontario, from the clutter of neon signs in downtown Toronto to the deer-fly hinterlands skirting Lake Nipissing, one can gawk at stilt walkers. For the most part, be they in a Scarborough mall or a hamlet of stone cemeteries, they will be about glitzy advertisement without inconvenient commentary.


Ironically, in the same way Moko – its historic African name – along with other historic forms like Dame Lorraine and Diable Molassie, grew into the stock masquerade pieces found in all emancipation-inspired carnivals, so has stilt walking unfortunately become another benchmark of Toronto’s capacity to disembowel live culture, entombing it into sterile multi-culture.


Among the most financially successful manifestations of the power of Moko to inspire, and as well to make wealthy, one has to consider the history of Cirque du Soliel. It was begun by Gilles Ste Croix, a Montreal busker after a municipality there stopped funding a youth hostel.


Ste Croix, to draw attention to their plight, walked 56 miles from Baie-St-Paul to Quebec City…on stilts. Today, his subsequent theatrical company, Circus of the Sun, grossing one billion annually, negotiates from positions of strength with such tourist-hungry enclaves as Dubai. Unlike its poor cousin, Caribana, Cirque du Soliel is the piper that calls its tune to receptive sheiks, presidents, institutions and municipalities.


The Moko is originally from the Congo and Nigeria. Interestingly, it came from such peoples as the Yoruba. These, many of African Hebrew lineage, were among those enslaved and shipped to the West Indies. The Moko, literally translated, “diviner” was revered in a traditional sense by the Nuapa people as a god. Moko’s height gave him the ability to see and foresee dangers and evil and also protect villages.


Then, to train as an initiate to walk the stilts, one had to go through exclusive secret rites. Among other skills learned, these enabled the practitioner to rise from a regular man’s height to the skies fluidly without any assistance, and likewise descend, leaving onlookers to wonder how it is done.


The later combination, the Moko Jumbie, is a twinning of two spiritual forces: the Moko of West Africa with the Jumbie of Trinidad. While the Moko was a traditional god, the Jumbie, uniquely Trinidadian, was derived from the word “zumba” describing a ghost or spirit form. Moko Jumbies, like other manifestations of anti-slavery revolt cum carnival, initially arrived in Trinidad, according to John Cupid’s Caribbean Beat, “walking all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Africa, laden with many experiences and in spite of inhuman attacks, yet walks still tall, tall, tall”.


The idea of the Moko survived by initially living in the hearts of African descendants during slavery to eventually walking the streets of Trinidad in the penultimate celebration of Emancipation: Carnival.


Thus, while the Moko is rooted in African heritage, Trinidad adapted and twinned the figure into the Moko Jumbie, or ghost. However, this notable figure of Carnival slowly faded until its drastic revival and reappearance elsewhere.


This occurred in the early 1990s. Moko Jumbies had become non-existent in Trinidad’s Carnival, until two men, Moose and Dragon, brought this tradition back to a place of prominence there. They, moreover, created a new kind of Moko Jumbie.


This occurred after a Canadian, Ben Block, had not only brought the idea back to them, but had as well, the knowledge of how to make better stilts. The style of stilts then walked on was very similar to those today, but with one main difference: they had no front leg brace. This changed with Ben Block. He showed how to put frontal braces on the upper leg of stilts.


Now more manoeuvrable, inspiration from this design revived Moko Jumbie traditions in Trinidad. Today, there are among others, two bands specifically performing according to Moko Jumbie traditions: Watusi and Kilimanjaro. So while the idea of the Moko came from Africa, Trinidad has made the Moko Jumbie its own. In fact, as a boy, among the worst threats one could face was “the vengeance of Moko!”


Finally, will other Canadians honoured to walk these stilts have any idea of the sacred tradition in which more than being performer, they are acolyte? Would it matter? Would it also matter if, like the young woman, they were likewise participating in other historic cultural traditions?


For example, the St. Patrick’s Day parade?


Would they, politicians and official sponsors, remain ignorant of the symbolism of the Irish shamrock? And the reason for the emotional, and overwhelming presence of the colour, green?


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