In an interview in Toronto’s Star newspaper, Willard John of St. Croix discusses the moko jumbie dancing tradition of his native St Croix. John, a 58-year-old St. Croix stilt dancer, has made it his life’s work to pass along the lively, lofty art form of his African ancestors. Here are excerpts from the article, which also includes a lovely description of the building of the island’s lovely church, built by slaves from live coral.
The colourful craft of stilt dancing came to the Caribbean with enslaved West Africans, who brought their culture and indigenous religions with them.
The “moko” or “mocker” was the spiritual guardian of African villages, tall enough to reach the evil spirits, and drive them off by mocking them with supernatural, magical powers.
It’s believed that another job of the African moko jumbie was to frighten children into adulthood – so maybe Willard had good reason to be scared as a kid.
Moko jumbie stilt dancing is mesmerizing. Rhythmic sounds of African drums evoke the spirits, while masked stilt dancers in colourful costumes appear from nowhere – gliding, almost floating in thin air.
“This current generation of stilt dancers has taken the art form to a level never seen before, skilfully combining dancing and acrobatics with complex synchronized choreography,” says Mr. John of his gifted students at the Guardians of Culture Moko Jumbies and Moko Jumbie Academy.
“The Caribbean moko jumbies combined influences from different religions of Africa, Europe and their new environment,” says the stilt dancing historian, pointing out that in the mid-1800s the traditional costume in the U.S. Virgin Islands was a European woman’s dress, adorned with African motifs, and petticoats underneath.
“It wasn’t until the 1960s, after too many curious people kept trying to look up under the dress and upsetting the precarious balance of the stilt dancers, that pants became part of the modern costume,” he laughs.
Whether in pants or a dress, moko jumbie stilt dancing is just as hard as it looks.
“It’s very physical and very taxing to your muscles and your bones,” says John, who has been performing the gliding, almost slow-motion movements on metres-high stilts for 34 years now, and is “planning to do this when I’m 100.”
“The passion that I had when I first got on my stilts and did my first parade in 1975 – that passion and spirituality is still there today. And I’ve got all these young people around me, so I’m encouraged to keep up with them,” says the talented teacher of his pleasure in sharing this leggy legacy.
“The art form originated in Africa and I want to always remind people of its spiritual African origins.”
. . .
“I like to tell visitors that just by touching St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, you’re touching the soul of an entire legacy of our island,” says U.S. Virgin Islands tourism’s Brad Nugent of the coral-coloured Frederiksted landmark.
“Slaves built many churches in the West Indies at the time, but St. Patrick’s was built with live coral. The enslaved Africans went out into Frederiksted Harbour, cut the coral from the sea, dragged it across the town, and built this beautiful church with their blood, sweat and tears.”
The brick-red colonial Fort Frederik witnessed the July 3, 1848 rebellion that brought an end to slavery in St. Croix. Using conch shells to signal from plantation to plantation, 8,000 slaves converged on Fort Frederik, demanding and gaining their freedom that day.
Locals still refer to Frederiksted as “Freedom City,” celebrating that Emancipation Day every July 3.
For the complete article go to http://www.thestar.com/travel/caribbean/article/715400–moving-to-the-beat-of-a-towering-cultural-icon
Photo: Laura Anderson Barbata’s “Jumbie Camp: An mx-lab Project Featuring the Brooklyn Moko Jumbies and Stefan Falke, 2007” at http://www.artbaselmiamibeach.com/go/id/gha/cat/g/