MOCKO JUMBIE HISTORY

Some people attain new heights by pursuing careers in law, business, and medicine.  While others attain heights as a stilt dancing Mocko Jumbie.   Traditionally, men were the only ones who engaged in this cultural dance.  Today, in the Virgin Islands, you will find men, women, and children of all nationalities and races involved in this spiritual, ancient African art form. 

The origin of Mocko Jumbies has been traced to the 13th and 14th centuries, although it could date back even further.  It has been a prevalent art form in some West African countries such as Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.  Depending on where you travel and the language spoken, “mocko” connotates different meanings.  It comes from a central African language meaning “healer.”  In the English language it means “to mock”, meaning imitation, as in false spirits.  From West African nations it means “seeker” or “protector.”  Some say it means one who wards off the evil spirits.  While others view Jumbies as evil spirits and related to the zombie.  Other early sources suggest that the origin of the term is probably Mumbo Jumbo, a Mandingo phrase, from West Africa meaning, an idol believed to have supernatural powers or an obscure ritual or incantation.   

In West Africa the tallness of the Mocko Jumbie symbolically represented the power and greatness of God, and acted as the spiritual seers or protectors of their villages.  From their towering heights, they could see evil spirits approaching the village in time to warn the villagers.  With their supernatural powers, they could keep the evil spirits away.  Some Mocko Jumbies have balanced on stilts as high as 10 to 20 feet - even today.  Mocko Jumbies were important in African religious ceremonies and a part of the rites of passage when a boy becomes a man and a girl becomes a woman, a blending of the social and religious, consistent with the way these aspects of life were intertwined in Africa.  The villagers, particularly the children, would be frightened by their tremendous height and dominating presence.  Often they would be someone who lived among the villagers, but they always remained anonymous by wearing a mask and covering their body in traditional clothing.  The mask was usually made from goat skin and covered with cowry shells.  Mirrors were used as part of their attire because evil spirits were afraid to see themselves.   

When the enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean, their religious traditions and observances came with them.  But they were forbidden by the European slave masters to practice their religious customs, so they transferred it into a festive context, to disguise it, so to speak.  But it was just a camouflage for its true religious meaning.   

Virgin Islanders credit John Farrell, better known as “Magnus” and Fritz Sealy, better known as “Marshall” for really keeping the art form alive.  They were the only ones known in the territory during the 1940’s and 50’s and were the high point of Carnival in 1952.  In those days they were popular, not only for mocking the spirits, but they wore dresses and skirts and short pants.  There is no record of the presence of Mocko Jumbies in the first St. Thomas Carnival, which was held February 14, 1912. 

Willard John, a Mocko Jumbie for 24 years, lives in St. Croix.  He moved to St. Croix from St. Thomas in 1978 and found no Mocko Jumbies on the island.  He had to develop everything from scratch.  He is also a teacher and has researched Mocko Jumbies for a book he plans to write.  He dresses in the traditional attire and always wears a mask.  He is interested in portraying the African art form in a true and honest manner.  He believes Mocko Jumbies are an integral part of our history, our people, and our culture.  Our culture is how people are defined - past, present, and future.   

In 1959 at age 10, Alli Paul along with his brothers, began to learn how to be a Mocko Jumbie.  His style was quite different; he wore a big round hat and long pants.  He also introduced acrobatic stunts and was the first Mocko Jumbie to tour the world.  He went to West Africa where the people were thrilled to see someone from the Caribbean performing an African art with such splendor.  He and his brothers formed troupes and began teaching others.  Many credit Alli Paul with revitalizing the art form on St. Thomas.  He now lives in St. Croix. 

 Hugo Moolenaar formed a troupe that was one of the first to include women.  Hugo has also traveled the world as a Mocko Jumbie.  In the mid 1980’s he and his troupe appeared on “Good Morning America”.   This group also appeared in the opening ceremonies in the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1986. 

The cultural art of Mocko Jumbie began to decline due to it not being taught to the younger generation.  The art has also declined in West Africa, where it is rarely seen at stage shows or among touring national dance troupes.   As you can see from the Carnival parades, there are many children performing this cultural art.  Every Mocko Jumbie and each troupe has their own style.  Being a Mocko Jumbie is a wholesome activity.  Unlike anywhere else in the world Mocko Jumbies are among the most exciting and popular entries in the Carnival parades.  All Caribbean islands have sun, sand, and sea.  The one aspect of our culture that is different, is we have Mocko Jumbies.  Yes, it is true that there are a handful of Mocko Jumbies on other Caribbean islands, but none that measure up to what we have here in the Virgin Islands.  The Mocko Jumbie has been a part of Virgin Islands culture for more than 200 years.  Today it can be considered “the icon of Virgin Islands culture.”  

 

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