July 21, 2008 — It was standing room only at Fort Frederik Sunday night, and that included some standing a good 12 feet high as stilt-walking mocko jumbies danced and swayed above the crowd during the "Mokoulation."
"The Mokoulation is to educate and entertain people about the history of stilt-walking," said Willard John of the Guardians of Culture, a stilt walker who narrated and produced the show.
The mocko jumbies made a graceful entrance, stooping to get through the old stone archways of the fort to the courtyard, and their costumes appeared to have a more African flavor. Over the year, their fanciful apparel have mingled African, European and Caribbean influences, with a weird mélange of gloves, masks, straw hats, dresses and petticoats.
There is evidence from as far back as 1770 about the stilt walkers and masqueraders in the Caribbean that originated in Africa, John said. There are a few interpretations of the role of mocko jumbies, he said. They battled unpleasant spirits and were guardians of the villages. They were also mediums able to communicate with ancestors, they scared children into adulthood and heralded in the holidays.
Drumming played a role in communication with spirits. Drummers at the fort entertained the crowd as the jumbies glided to the beat as if floating on thin air, with hands raised skywards toward the spirits.
Alvin "Allie" Paul is credited with the contemporary comeback of mocko jumbies, John said. He started to perform in 1960 and soon decided the costumes needed to change, because it was dangerous for the stilt walker to have people lift up the dress to see what was underneath it. He fashioned baggy pants with a sort of skirt attached at the waist.
Before Paul got involved stilt walking was disappearing with only a couple of major performers.
"In the 1970s stilt-walking became an endangered art," John said. "Allie Paul is the one responsible for the resurgence, quality and quantity of shows and admitting girls as performers."
During Paul's time performing he got his brothers and sisters together and formed a group keeping tradition alive. Children interested in participating start out with the Ricardo Richards Elementary School mocko jumbies than move up to the Guardians of Culture.
"The best way to preserve culture is to live it," John said.
For several audience members, that meant joining the dozen or so mocko jumbies in the courtyard to dance and frolic at the end of the show.
The V.I Department of Tourism was the major sponsor of the Mokoulation in conjunction with Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (CHANT). Local public television station WTJX was on hand too, collecting film for a DVD intended for tourism, schools and libraries.
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