De Spirit of de Stick
A Moko Jumbie is a guardian spirit which, as with Kalinda, roots its power within the Stick. It is descendant of West Africa, however uniquely Caribbean and quite different from the stickwalking traditions seen in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, and other countries of that region.
Moko Jumbie manifestations across the Caribbean islands vary to some extent, but share enough in common to suggest frequent communication of the artform between the islands over the near two centuries since the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The late John Cupid dated the arrival of Moko Jumbie onto Trinbago (Trinidad and Tobago) as the 1830s. Recollections by Percy Fraser (brought forward by Bridget Brereton) include lively descriptions of 1870s Carnivals in Port of Spain (Conquerabia) in which giant Moko Jumbies danced sticks through the streets.
In spite of this long history, at least one gap in the heritage seems to exist: Photographer David Lee Hai, born in 1942, recalls seeing no incarnations of Moko Jumbie in Trinbago during his most active years of work in the 1950s and 1960s. Photographer Desmond Clarke, who intently photographed Carnival for an overlapping time period, says the same. If the tradition hadn’t stalled completely in those days, it at least faded from prevalence.
Back in de Earlies
These are the words of Point Fortin native, Dexter Stewart; “When I start walkin’ Moko Jumbie, it was I alone!”
Born in 1964, many of Stewart’s early days in the borough were spent playing in New Lands with his friend, Horse. He recalls using lengths of bamboo as stilts; Standing on offshoots and holding onto the main stalks as ‘handles’ in order to walk them. These childhood experiments culminated in an appearance at the 1974 (or 1975) Children’s Carnival:
“Wow! Look at that!” exclaimed the day’s MC as Stewart strode tall into the performing area wearing an innovated costume consisting a dress borrowed from his mother. For his efforts that day, Stewart won a $10 TTD voucher which he used to buy a school pants from Chan’s.
Distance running was also a big part of Stewart’s life in those days and he would regularly practice along the beaches surrounding Clifton Hill. On one of those runs, a fateful encounter would stand him onto a proverbial giant’s shoulders.
Two influences prevail as giants in the story of Point Fortin: Trinbago’s oil industry and John Cupid.
Cupid was a keen thinker and historian with an understanding of the deep importance of advancing the tales of a culture. During the days of Trintoc, he worked at the Point Fortin office in the marketing and community relations field. In this position he was pivotal in the activities of the ‘Trintoc Cultural Workshop’ which began in either 1981 or 1982.
Dexter Stewart remembers hearing Cupid’s voice over the radio as he put out calls for, “bringing back all oldtime Carnival characters.” On an evening run in Clifton Hill, Stewart sighted John Cupid and ran up to him proclaiming, “Mr. Cupid, I could walk Moko Jumbie!” Cupid immediately became excited and started making arrangements to get Stewart supplied with a proper costume and ready to perform. “Now for now, I mean within the next day or so, he came down by me and get his niece to sew the first Moko Jumbie clothes for me.”
Apart from Stewart (Moko Jumbie), Cupid sourced practitioners of: Wild Indian mas; Molasses Devil; Fancy Sailor; Dragon mas; Bat mas; Burrokeet; Midnight Robber; Dame Lorraine; The Bookman; and Rope Jab (aka ‘Jab Jab’). Through his influence and ingenuity, he created opportunities for these skilled performers to earn income, grow, and teach their skills, thereby propelling the traditions forward to the newer generation.
An initiative Stewart recalls as ‘Mas Watch Mas’ allowed him to observe the practices of an older—more experienced—Moko Jumbie from the US Virgin Islands, Dave Robeson. “Dat is Moko Jumbie!”
Dave Robeson (1952–1998) was the grandson of Paul Leroy Robeson, the famous US singer and activist. The Director of Ancestral Spirits (USVI), Dave Robeson, became something of a mentor to the young Dexter Stewart, coaxing him to advance both his skills and stick technology.
Back before meeting Robeson, one of Stewart’s worst falls had taken place. It happened on the courtyard of Central Bank Twin Towers, Port of Spain. The floors were tiled and polished. Stewart, after strolling his sticks up the steps to the court, immediately slipped and skidded, impacting the rock-solid ground hard. Luckily no bones were broken, but the injury would continue to pester him for years to come.
Robeson would come to advise Stewart away from his existing stick design; “He say I need to bend meh knees…” Although no longer his original, hand-held, bamboo model, Stewart’s 1980s iteration used to be tied at the upper thigh, thereby allowing no bending of the legs. Following Robeson’s suggestion however, the sticks would be cut down to the patella, as remains common today in Trinbagonian sticks. (NOTE: Knee braces didn’t exist yet and would be invented in the 1990s by Moose of Cocorite.) Robeson had also suggested rubber padding onto the bottom of the sticks for greater traction on slippery surfaces.
A deeper mythological understanding of the artform was also taught to Stewart, including the idea that a Moko Jumbie must be an enigma. This resonated with Stewart who already moved in mystique; “Yuh see meh an’ yuh ain’t see meh.”
Stewart always emphasises that “Moko Jumbie and stiltwalkers is two different things.”
Moko Jumbie is a spectre. “…Ah ting start, yuh see ‘Bam!’ a Moko Jumbie come out do he ting; everybody eyes on de Moko Jumbie, right? Ah next scene change—some dancers come out and dey start to ting—So everybody now, dey watchin’ de dancers. When yuh look for the Moko Jumbie?… He gone!”
Big in de Dance
In 1985, at the age of 21, Stewart left Trinidad to seek his fortunes on a Canadian farm. He, and others from the Caribbean, would work fields, harvesting fruits for roughly half-year stints before returning home to the islands. When he could, he continued to practice at Niagara on the Lake, and also took part in Toronto’s Caribana.
His period of Canadian farm work ended six summers later when Founder of Malick Folk Performing Company (and good friend of John Cupid), Norvan Fullerton, gained Stewart’s contact.
Years of astute work had gained Fullerton a strong reputation as a man capable of pulling together hefty productions. In 1992, when Carifesta was carded for Trinbago for the first time in history, Fullerton sought out the most reliable performers he could enlist. Bajan Moko Jumbie legend, Jeffrey ‘Ifie’ Wilkinson was called, and also Dexter Stewart.
Success at Carifesta V led to exciting, new opportunities.
The following year, Stewart appeared at the Soca Monarch Finals, Kaiso Semi-Finals, Clash in the Savannah, among other events. At the 1993 Calypso Semi-Finals, he performed alongside fellow Point Fortin native, Austin ‘Superblue’ Lyons.
Stewart mobilised a group of his stickwalking students under the banner ‘Dexter Stewart and Associates’. They were recruited by Norvan Fullerton for various shows, including the 1995 Carifesta VI and a Dimanche Gras production featuring costume designs by legendary Masman, Wayne Berkeley. Some of these walkers, including Ellis Pompey, would go onto join the UniverSoul Circus of Georgia, United States. Stewart himself would be part of the circus for a couple years.
Adventures in Foreign
In 1996, with funding from the Borough Council of Point Fortin, Stewart took part in a cultural exchange programme with Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington State. There he met with Brian Honore—well known for portraying the Midnight Robber—and other representatives from Trinbago.
Stewart’s forays into the US continued in 1998 with his participation at the ‘World Carnival Conference’, Trinity College, Connecticut, coordinated by Professor Milla Cozart Riggio. The event saw practitioners from Carnivals all across the globe including Brasil, African countries, and the Middle East. Noted anthropologist and cultural advocate for Trinbago, JD Elder, was part of the local contingent.
In 2000, at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Stewart taught stickwalking for two hours every weekend as part of a summer programme. The sessions were partnered with Norvan Fullerton’s Malick Folk Performing Company teaching Afro-Caribbean drumming.
During these years even the infamous ‘Beast of Punta Cana’ materialised. Neil Giuseppi, a Trinbagonian news anchor, formed a company hired to produce an opening ceremony in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. The production meant to portray a story of redemption with a ‘Beast of Punta Cana’ (played by Dexter Stewart upon his sticks) morphing from a dragon-like figure into a benevolent form via a tricky costume change. Because of its size and intricacy, Stewart could not swap costumes himself. The plan was contrived that Norvan Fullerton and four Spanish-speaking strongmen would therefore catch Stewart and carry him through a narrow gap in the backstage’s scaffolding for that shapeshift. During execution however, an incident which Stewart continues to find hilarious took place: Stewart was in his heavy ‘Beast’ costume, his body fully encased from view. He dropped into the arms of the men to be carried through the narrow scaffolding, Fullerton holding him near the Beast’s shoulders. Midway through the gap, Fullerton found himself caught unexpectedly overloaded with Stewart’s weight but completely unable to communicate with the Spanish-speakers! He urgently used what few words of Spanish he knew—as deperately as he could. The men, meanwhile, gawked at him flatly, puzzled, and unable to decypher Fullerton’s distress! Through all this, Fullerton recalls feeling Dexter “shaking with laughter” inside his costume as he supported him. The stagehands eventually figured it out and rushed to aid.
In 2005, after defeating Bahrain 1:0, Trinbago qualified for the following year’s FIFA World Cup; the first World Cup qualification of the islands’ history. A contingent of Trinbagonian performers went with the ‘Soca Warriors’ to Germany to support the team and perform in the streets around the football stadia. Stewart was there, performed, but unfortunately fell ill—possibly with chicken pox—and had to “stay back” in quarantine after the dismally brief Trinbagonian World Cup campaign ended and all others returned home to the islands. Alone with his sticks, upon recovering and becoming safe to fly, he ventured into the airport where a further misfortune befell. In his own words:
“When Ah reach by the airport, meh Moko Jumbie stick in meh bag, Ah reach by de counter… Dey tell me seven hundred and fifty Euro [to transport the sticks]… [I] never forget that; Seven hundred and fifty Euros! This is meh stick that Ah have here; me and dem alone. Me ain’t have that money. Me ain’t have that money at all! Ah say a’right, Ah come out de line; take meh Moko Jumbie stick; put it into a corner wit meh bells—I used to have bells… [take] out all meh name tag [and] everyting, [and] leave he in a corner. […] That was a hard decision to make. […] I had to leave that and go.”
Stewart was able to return home, but sadly his sticks—with their bells—were sacrificially left behind.
Today, Dexter Stewart, the mysterious Moko Jumbie man, is back in his cherished borough of Point Fortin. He earns his living as a skilled welder, still walking sticks occasionally, and spending time with Horse, his past students, and his family.
His work was a big inspiration to Junior Bisnath of nearby San Fernando; a man who (like Glenn ‘Dragon’ DeSouza of Cocorite) devotely teaches sticks to the children of his community, thereby securing the future of the Moko Jumbie tradition.
Ellis Pompey, one of Dexter Stewart’s students, forged himself a decade-long career at UniverSoul Circus. So too did Dean, Nealon ‘Rattie’, Shaka, Marlon ‘Robbers’ (who also worked awhile at Ring Ding circus), Corey, Selwin, Bevon, ‘Creamy’, Khadeen, Crystal, Bob and others all earn livings using the skills passed on.
And so, as the Kakilambe welcomes new Life and growth into the world, the ‘Spirit of the Stick’ dances ahead—its rhythm ready to guide new generations into its movements.
- Conversations with Dexter Stewart, Horse, and Ellis Pompey on:
- 12th March, 2020;
- 28th May, 2020;
- 26th July, 2020;
- A conversation with Norvan Fullerton on 25th June, 2020;
- Conversations with David Lee Hai in January 2020;
- A conversation with Desmond Clarke in February 2020;
- Conversations with Moose on 18th June, 2020 and 13th August, 2020;
- ‘Caribbean Festival Arts’ by John W. Nunley and Judith Bettelheim;
- ‘Carnival 150 Years Ago’ by Bridget Brereton, Trinidad Express, 13th February, 2019;
- ‘Life & Development in Point Fortin’ by Marlon Richardson, 26th April, 2005;
- ‘Cupid and Canboulay’ by Tony Rakhal-Fraser, Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, 4th February, 2016;
- ‘Paid Notice: Deaths Robeson, David Paul’, NY Times, 1st April, 1998;
- ‘Celebrating the Spirit of Carnival’ by Pat Seremet;
- ‘Jacob Delworth Elder’ by Peter Stone and Ellen Harold;
- ‘Professor Milla Riggio Tells of Carnival Crossings and what makes T&T so Unique at UWI’.
Thanks to Dexter Stewart for inviting us into his home and lending us so much time and patience during several interviews, phonecalls, and WhatsApp messages. Thanks to Horse and Ellis Pompey who also gave of their time, let alone agreeing to be part of our livestreamed interview attempt on 26th July, 2020.
Thanks to Norvan Fullerton, Moose, David Lee Hai, and Desmond ‘Sir’ Clarke for their wisdom, contacts, and conversations which helped flesh out the timeline of events.
Thanks Arnaldo James for coming to our rescue with incredibly valuable information about livestreaming. Thanks Aliceyard + Granderson Lab for use of the space. Thanks Kriston ‘Fearless Leader’ Chen and Joshua Lue Chee Kong for first inviting us into this adventure known as ‘stickwalking’, let alone providing the inspiration to look deeper into the Trinbago Moko Jumbie story (and Trinbago history more generally).
Thanks Maleika Samuel for reading endless edits, double-checking poor grammar and spelling, and listening to grumpy moments when progress was frustrated. Your support was / is crucial!
Massive thanks to Catherine CK Sforza for her willingness to scour the length and breadth of Trinidad to make all of the interviews and conversations come together, and teaching all about ‘flow states’ and allowing things to happen, even when they seem like they may not.
Lastly—and most fervently—thank you so much for reading!