Do you remember seeing roadside air dancers, their pencil-like bodies and flailing arms ducking and diving as air is blown into them from a noisy generator as they promote something, a gas station maybe? They’re colourful, and we feel the tug of a smile forming.
On St Croix, the less boisterous and therefore in many ways, more charming of the US Virgin Islands, instead of plastic air dancers there are the moko jumbies. Real men, women and teens walking high on stilts above lesser mortals; gaudily dressed and masked guardians of peace, always a pleasure to watch as they dance to the rhythms of the West Indies.
The moko jumbie tradition came to the Caribbean with enslaved Africans who were discouraged, and sometimes forbidden, from practicing their cultural beliefs, which lead to the adaptation of some practices to a more festive occasion. The word ‘moko’, said to derive from the Bantu languages of West and Central Africa, means ‘healer’; though most Anglophones believe the word lends itself to the English verb ‘mock’. Either derivation seems reasonable as, combined with ‘jumbie’ meaning spirit, it covers the purpose of these towering characters. Tall enough to peek into the tree tops, around corners and into the highest buildings, the moko jumbie, sometimes described as symbolic of the power of God, drove out the evil spirits from the villages with their magical powers. Surely banishing wickedness could be called ‘healing’?
The skills, and culture, behind these masked, colourfully-clad stilt walkers dwindled to near extinction in the mid 1900s. Only with the dedication of a handful of people does this exhilarating dance form with its fascinating history exist today, and fortunately is being handed down to the younger generations.
St Croix offers ample opportunity to see moko jumbies perform, not just at Carnival or Jump Up, with many of the hotels offering performances for their guests. The Buccaneer Hotel at Shoys is where I went to watch Benny Royes and Carey Davis perform, after they graciously allowed me to watch them prepare. One sits on the roof of his car, the other on a retaining wall overhung with brilliant orange bougainvillea, as they strap on their stilts and shimmy into long flowing trousers. These Guardians of Culture follow the moko jumbie tradition of covering their faces, only their eyes peeping from between the folds of fabric, before slipping on the loose shirt and finally the hat. They lever up from their perches, steady themselves a moment and then start the walk uphill to the performance area.
It is almost dusk. That bewitching time when the searing heat of the day has abated just a little, and the Trade Winds are streaming up the hillside, lovely for the audience but which requires an added dose of mojo for the performers as they are rocked on their tall stilts. Hotel guests meander the ruins of the old sugar mill on the property, sipping Cruzan rum to the rhythms coming from Bill Blass’ steel pans. Children scamper amongst the hibiscus, or balance along the narrow stone wall, part of the original mill. With the ocean shimmering in the cove below, the last rays silhouette a yacht furling her sails; it is a scene right out of any Caribbean guidebook.
But this isn’t just any island. St Croix is special, her Danish heritage apparent in the beautiful old buildings, foot thick walls keeping the tropical sun at bay. There is a magical quality to the island, not least because of the moko jumbies.
The music changes and the moko jumbies appear. There is something otherworldly, spiritual, about them as they start to dance, bending and swaying in the breeze. The audience is drawn in to the pulsing tempo, and start to clap as the dancers weave between people, sometimes stepping over them. Hands reach up high above their heads to hold the moko jumbie’s hands. It is involuntary. Enchanting moments that bring a smile to the dourest of visitors.
Watching these masked performers, I am reminded of a comment by Mr John, the man responsible for the resurgence of this art form on St Croix, “We are transformed into moko jumbies as soon as we put our stilts on. It is an obligation to pass the culture on. It comes through us, not from us.”
Too soon the performance is over, and hotel guests rush to have their picture taken with a moko jumbies, these beguiling Guardians of Culture.
This was a contest submission by Apple Gidley.