Friday, January 15, 2010

The History of Moko Jumbie in Trinidad

The following is information about Moko Jumbie I have gathered from my research. I invite anyone with further information to share. Thanks!

The word “Moko Jumbie” is a combination of African and local Creole language. In her book, Guinea’s Other Suns, Maureen Warner-Lewis traces the word “moko” back to the Ibibio nation of Nigeria.

Source: Maureen Warner-Lewis, Guineas Other Suns

She said that “Moko is the third of seven grades in the hierarchy of the Ekoi-Efik secret society.” She said that even though “there is yet no evidence that the Ibibio Moko is a stilt-dancer…stilt-performers are common Igbo, Ibibio, and Ijaw masquerades.”

Other articles, however, suggest more possible origins of the word “Moko.” An article by Hollis Urban Liverpool traces the word back to the “…stilt dancers of Yorubaland, Toma, Guinea, and Senegal…[who portrayed] the ancestral spirits that overlooked and protected the villages.”

Yet another well-respected scholar on the subject, Milla Cozart Riggio, states that Moko is the Orisha God of fate and retribution, which traces the mas back to Yorubaland. One thing we can say for sure is that Moko is a West-African deity that is physicalized in the mortal world as the masquerade of a stilted creature. When a person plays the Moko masquerade, it is believed that they, “cancel or obliterate their personalities by changing into…supernatural spirits.” In other words, the masquerader is believed to temporarily transform into the spirit of Moko when they play the masquerade.

There is no evidence that Moko was a dancing masquerade. Rather, the dancing, as well as the word “Jumbie” were added in Trinidad. Most academic texts define “Jumbie” as a local word meaning “ghost” or “spirit.” However, one day when I was practicing stilt-dancing at Keylemanjahro in 2008, a passer-by came up to me and said,

“Do you know what Jumbie means?”

I said, “Yes. It means spirit.”

He responded, “No! It means daemon!”

Therefore, the association that Milla Cozart-Riggio made between the Moko Jumbie mas and the Orisha god of fate and retribution may be an important indicator for how the mas is understood today.

Historically, the Moko Jumbie became a popular traditional carnival character between 1900-1950. The Following is a description of a traditional Moko Jumbie given by Daniel Crowly, in his article, “The Traditional Masques of Carnival”:

In Trinidad he [moko jumbie] was played, nearly always by men, on stilts as high as 10 or 15 feet. The stilts were brightly painted in stripes, and the masquer wore a long full skirt and a jacket or ‘eton’ of brightly-coloured satin or velvet. His hat was made of tòshò, the dried pulp of the wild cucumber which was fashioned into an ‘Admiral’s’ hat with long peaks in front and back and with the crown of the hat decorated with feathers. Moko Jumby was sometimes accompanied by a dwarf in similar costume but without stilts, to accentuate Moko’s height. He danced all day through the streets, collecting money on a plate from the people crowded into second-floor windows and balconies. Thus, he tapped an audience out of reach of the street masquers. His dance was similar to a jig and he either used the music of any passing band or was accompanied by a drum, triangle, and flute.

In contrast, the Moko Jumbie of today, according to my experiences, dances primarily to Soca music, are typically unaccompanied by a complementary masquerader, and wear a variety of costumes. Whereas in the past, the Moko Jumbie had a set costume, in the modern carnival, the costume of a Moko Jumbie seems to be open to creative design. I've seen Moko Jumbies during Carnival dress as an octopus, a dragon, a winged creature etc. It is traditional for a Moko Jumbie to cover their face with a mask of some sort (this is reminiscent of the religious masquerade of Moko in West Africa where no part of the human body is left uncovered). However, in modern Trinidadian carnival I have seen some Moko Jumbies that cover their face and some that do not. When I performed with Keylemanjahro between 2007-2008 (once for a political ralley and once for a street festival) we didn't wear masks and I think the reason for this may have been more logistical than anything (we didn't have enough masks).


Cozart Riggio, Milla ed. Carnival: Culture In Action—The Trinidad Experience. New

York: Routledge, 2004.

Crowley, Daniel. “The Traditional Masques of Carnival.” Caribbean Quarterly:

Carnival Monograph. Rex Nettleford ed. 30-60.

Falke, Stefan. Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad. New York: Pointed Leaf

Press, 2004.

Hill, Errol. The Trinidad Carnival. London: New Beacon Books, 1997.

Liverpool, Hollis Urban. “Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival:

African or European?” The Drama Review: The Journal of Performance Studies,

Special Expanded Issue—Trinidad And Tobago Carnival. Milla Cozart

Riggio ed. Fall 1998, 24-37.

Warner-Lewis, Maureen. Guinea’s Other Suns. Dover: The Majority Press, 1991.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


The purpose of this blog is to serve as a resource about Moko Jumbie, a traditional carnival masquerade, for artists and scholars here in the Caribbean and for interested members of the international community. This blog is especially designed as an artistic community where Moko Jumbies can dialogue about their art form and share skills, ideas, and knowledge with each other. The currently existing body of information (written, photo and video) on Moko Jumbie is very limited. Therefore, in an effort to further the art form, I am starting this blog to share my knowledge and to invite others to share information, photos and video. Together, we can contextualize our art form and create a modern portrait of The Moko Jumbie.

My name is Tasha Connolly and I am a Circus and Carnival scholar from Hartford, Connecticut in the United States. Hartford has a significant West Indian population and hosts a small Carnival celebration every year. Also 2 hours south of Hartford, in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the largest diaspora Carnival celebrations in the world. I first came to Trinidad to pursue Carnival Studies at the University of the West Indies from 2007-2008 with a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship. My training as a Moko Jumbie comes out of the Keylemanjahro School of Art and Culture in Cocorite, Trinidad. Keylemanjahro was founded in 1985 by Dragon DeSouza, who has become famous for his work in reviving the Moko Jumbie masquerade in Trinidad Carnival after it had virtually gone extinct. Dragon taught himself how to walk stilts as a child using two sticks and holding a shovel for balance. He then went on to train thousands of Moko Jumbies in the Keylemanjahro style, including myself, which has lead to a thriving presence of Moko Jumbies in modern Trinidadian Carnival. His work has also contributed to "The Brooklyn Jumbies" in New York, who's founders were Keylemanjahro-trained. Photographer, Stefan Falke, did a photo-documentary project about Keylemanjahro that got turned into the book, Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad.

To see video postings of The Brooklyn Jumbies click here.
To see video postings of The Keylemanjahro School of Art and Culture click here.

As a white American of Jewish-Irish heritage, some people have asked me why I have come to Trinidad to study Carnival. My interest in Trinidadian Carnival comes from my recognition of Carnival as a powerful form of visual dialogue, oral/visual history, and empowerment. As a person who comes from a society that owes so much to it's African heritage, yet claims itself to be white, I greatly appreciate Carnival as an art form that celebrates African history and culture in the diaspora and serves as a tool for the post-colonial world to heal, re-educate, and empower itself. I think that the establishment of hundreds of yearly carnival celebrations all over the world in the last several decades, are a testament to how much the Caribbean, a region that is so often undervalued internationally, has to teach and offer the world.