Sunday, April 24, 2011

Moko Jumbies

ST.CROIX, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS–Five-year-old Willard John didn't see his destiny when he stared up at the moko jumbie stilt dancer towering over him ... he was just plain scared.

"When you're that small, and looking at a 13- or 14-foot character on stilts, it's definitely scary!" says the now-58-year-old St. Croix stilt dancer, who has made it his life's work to pass along the lively, lofty art form of his African ancestors.

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."

Willard John's passionate plan to preserve the moko jumbie legacy in St. Croix is just one history lesson to be learned in colourful classrooms throughout the island, full of vivid reminders of its African and European heritage.

Papa Moco Jumbie

It's carnival time in my town today
So papa & I get our costumes ready
Oh I cannot wait for everybody to see
when papa stands on his stilts
he becomes a moco jumbie

My papa's a moco jumbie
Stands tall as the eyes can see
I wish I was tall as daddy
He dances to bring harmony
Come on son, dance with me
I know I may be small but I wish I was tall
So for the carnival day I could moco jumbie my way

My papa's a moco jumbie
Stands tall as the eyes can see
I wish I was tall as daddy
He dances to bring harmony
and now he's dancing with me

And while I may be small we came up with a way
So for the carnival day I could moco jumbie my way

Me and my papa today, dancing down the carnival way


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  2. Thank you for preserving this piece of our culture. The more I learn, the more I am saddened by how disconnected we, African Americans, are from our culture. I hope to be able to share this piece of our culture with my son now that I have rediscovered it. Thank you for existing!

  3. I was privileged to see Mr. John and his troop of Jumbies when they gave a presentation to the students of the West Indies Marine laboratory, back in the fall of 1985. They also told us of the history behind the dancers and spoke about the various traditions brought over from Africa. It was a wonderful experience, and one of my fondest memories of my all-too-short college semester on St. Croix. I shall always treasure the entertainment and education we received.
    Greg Mactye,
    FDU Marine lab,
    Class of Fall 1985


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