Caribbean Currents: Stilt walking, junkanoo dancing and moko jumbie more popular than ever

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A report from the Philadelphia Tribune.

Old time something come back again! The older folks will say “the old becomes new again or the more things seem to change is the more they remain the same.” Stilt walking, junkanoo dancing and the moko jumbie phenomenon can be traced back many, many years as far back as the 1700s. In an online article dated 2011 the “Virgin Islands Traveler” focused on “The Evolution of the Moko Jumbie.” After reading it, I got a much clearer understanding of what stilt walkers, junkanoos and moko jumbie is all about. This part of our Caribbean culture originated in Africa where traditional dress was donned as stilt walkers were fulfilling various spiritual roles by communicating with the ancestors. They also played a key role in coming-of-age ceremonies.

B. E. Laine, a Delaware County resident recalls her memories of junkanoo dancing. “I must have been about 4 years old when I became aware of junkanoo dancers. Back in those ‘olden days’ they were a grass-roots group accompanied by their makeshift band. There was drumming, along with other homemade instruments mainly fashioned from kitchen utensils. Graters, spoons and pot covers made a great rhythm that kept the dancers in sync. This was not the greatest entertainment for most children,” Laine said.

“I can still recall how terrified I was when I saw a stilt walker for the first time in my life! A person that towered over everyone with a painted face and a scary costume. I clung to my mother for dear life! I almost lost my mind when the junkanoo dancers grabbed at other children in the crowd,” Laine said. “After that experience, whenever there was a parade and I heard the moko jumbie music, I would make a beeline to my bedroom and hide under my bed until I was sure that they had already gone by our house.”

Since then, the art form has taken on a whole new look. The costumes that are worn have evolved into brightly colored costumes and the music that they dance to is more modern calypso, soca and reggae. When the children hear the lively beats, they jump up and start dancing to the music or tapping their feet and clapping their hands.

Stiltwalkers, moko jumbie and junkanoo have become a traditional act in circuses, parades and shows throughout the United States and other parts of the world. The UniverSoul Circus, for example, has a permanent dance group from Trinidad and Tobago called the Caribbean Dynasty Dancers. My daughter and I look forward to seeing them every time they come to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia because they bring something new and fresh to the big top every year. They are amazing. When they enter onto the stage the crowd livens up and starts to move. As someone from the Caribbean, it makes me very proud (as I am sure it does for all of us) to see other cultures embracing the beauty of the performance. We were recently at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and a part of the Lion King Circle of Light show features stilt walkers with the same type of lively Caribbean music.

Most of the Caribbean Islands boast several carnivals that feature these performers as a main tourist attraction.

Gone are the days when one has to travel to the Caribbean Islands to experience this form of entertainment. Today many stilt walkers, junkanoo dancers and moko jumbie dancers have organized themselves and are available at a price to those who so desire to make them a part of their next affair. These performers are being hired for entertainment at weddings, banquets and parties.

But, if you want to experience the original, true junkanoo, carnival, moko jumbie, you have to check the list below and visit one of the islands of the Caribbean. You won’t regret it.

Anguilla: August (Carnival and Boat-Racing)

Antigua: August (Road March and Steel Drum)

Aruba: Lent (Torch Light Parades and King and Queen Elections)

Bahamas (Junkanoo): December-January (“Rush-Out” Parade)

Barbados (Crop Over): August (Calypso Music)

Bermuda (Bermuda Day/Junkanoo): May (Celebration of Bermudan Ancestry)

Bonaire: Lent (The Burning of “King Momo”)

British Virgin Islands (Emancipation Festival): July-August (Food Fairs and Street Jamming)

Cayman Islands (Batabano): April-May (Bar Hop and Soca Performances)

Cuba: Lent (Comparsas street performances)

Curacao: Lent (Tumba music)

Dominica: Lent (Jump-up Street Parade)

Dominican Republic: Lent (Elaborate Masks and Multi-town Celebrations)

Grenada: August (Local Band Performances and Queen Show)

Guadeloupe: Lent (Dance Marathons and Competitions)

Haiti: Lent (Rural “Rara” Festival and Creole Celebrations)

Jamaica (Bacchanal): April (Mas Camp and Bacchanal Fridays)

Martinique: Lent (Burning of “Vaval,” the Carnival King)

Montserrat: December (Beauty Pageants and “Masqueraders” Dancers)

Saba: July-August (Celebration of the “Old Caribbean”)

St. Barts: Lent (“Vide” Parade Day and Costume/Dance Competitions)

St. Eustatius: April-May (Carnival Village and International Show)

St. Kitts and Nevis (Sugar Mas): December-January (The “Sugar Cup” and Cocktail Party)

St. Lucia: July (Boutique Carnival and Parade of the Bands)

St. Martin/Maarten: St. Martin: Lent; St. Maarten: April (Balloon Parade and Light Parade)

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Vincy Mas): June-July (J’Ouvert, Miss Carnival, and Junior Pan Fest)

Trinidad and Tobago: Lent (biggest and most well-known Carnival in the Caribbean)

Turks and Caicos (Junkanoo): December-January

U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Croix, December-January; St. Thomas, April (Food Fairs and Fireworks)

 

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