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.


  1. Hello Tasha.
    Thank you for starting this very informative blog. I'm off to a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration.
    Have a great day!

  2. While the information is interesting, can you tell me if there is a spiritual significance to this art form for any local Caribbean religions. I am asking as the name "jumbie" describes something with a certain spiritual aspect in Caribbean language. What is the historical importance of this art form in Caribbean history?

  3. This is very interesting information