Moko Jumbies in Trinidad & Tobago, Photographed by Che Kothari
Learning about tradition and culture from around the world is always special but it’s truly so when it’s shared by the storytellers and practitioners who’ve grown up living, breathing, creating and contributing to it. For the past 6 years, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the rituals, diversity, music, food and glowing people that make up Trinidad & Tobago’s ever-giving Carnival culture. And I’m just starting to scratch the surface.
This story isn’t about the history of Carnival, I’ll have to save that for another time. I will say that Carnival is far from what many think it is—just one big dance party with shiny feathers, parades and flowing rum. It is rooted in resistance against colonial rule, the most significant celebration of freedom after the emancipation of the enslaved people, and African & Caribbean folklore, which to this day, makes up most of the Traditional Mas part of Carnival culture. This is a story about how I turned fan girl at first sight of what has become one of my favourite parts of the Carnival experience—Moko Jumbies.
Moko Jumbies are famously known as stilt walkers/dancers but there’s a lot more to these magical beings. The art form is said to have originated in West Africa and was brought to the Caribbean through the hearts and stories of enslaved Africans. MOKO means HEALER while JUMBI is a colloquial term for SPIRIT. The story goes that Moko Jumbies protect the people and guard them from any evil entry since their towering height lets them gather information easily.
One evening while we were checking out one of the many annual Traditional Mas competitions in Port of Spain, my friend Matthew casually stopped to chat with a couple of Moko Jumbies. I stood in awe, staring 14 feet up into the sky at the majestic characters in costume moving effortlessly while they laughed and casually bent far down to sip rum like doing that was completely normal. This was my introduction to Shynel and Tekel who were crowned Queen and King of the Traditional Mas Competition* (that’s a BIG DEAL!) and who I later discovered happened to be Matthew's cousins. I eventually toned down my fan girl face and we became friends.
|Months later, while back at the NBNW studio in India, I couldn’t stop thinking about the grandeur of the art form, the importance of where they come from, and details of the spectrum of traditional costumes that are larger than life. Literally. I dreamed of experimenting with fabrics to design Moko Jumbie gear in an NBNW way. After asking Shynel if she would be interested in this, she gladly helped with the sizing and requirements to design our first pieces, and we decided to create our first moving visual together.
The next Carnival season was just around the corner and I was planning the shoot with Shynel, when she casually mentioned that she’s super excited to perform and also very pregnant. Sad that she wouldn’t be able to be a part of the shoot, I suggested postponing it. She laughed and said, “Postpone for what? Stilts are an extension of my legs and I can easily dance and shoot while pregnant.” As the fearful one who was neither on stilts nor pregnant, I really didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of shooting with a very pregnant Shynel no matter how confident she was! This visual is what we created and Shynel ended up giving birth to her first baby boy Prince, later that very same day.
This dance crew Tekel, Russel & Shynel represent the Jab Jumbies and Moko Somokow bands from Tarodale and Pleasantville in Trinidad and Tobago.
Photographed by Che Kothari