Saturday, November 25, 2006

Jump Up and Moko Jumbies

Last night the town of Christiansted threw a huge street party, or "Jump Up" as we actually call it here. The historic streets in the center of town were closed to traffic and full of people enjoying the scene. The shops stayed open late and offered many sales. There were food vendors along the sidewalks, and on many corners bands played music for every taste: Jazz, Soca (an off-shoot of Calypso with rapid percussion), rock and roll, and of course, steel pans. The Ebenezer Methodist Steel Orchestra, an impressive group of about 60 teens and pre-teens, always draws the biggest crowds as they perform anything from church music to Christmas carols to Beethoven.

But the sight that always steals the show is that of the Moko Jumbies. They walk in stilts and wear colorful costumes. They don large hats and masks to cover their faces. These towering apparitions dance their way through the crowds and stop in corners to perform amazing acrobatics with their stilts. They pose for photos and accept tips from their appreciative audience. Dancing to ward off evil, Moko Jumbies, have been a feature of St. Croix celebrations since the slaves brought the tradition from Africa in the plantation era.

When I first saw the Moko Jumbies, I watched them dance down the street in single line formation. Looking up to watch their jerky dance moves, I could feel the awe they must have inspired in the African slaves who had to leave so much behind, but simply couldn't part with this important part of their tradition.

At the end of that first night, Bob and I were walking down a quieter side street and we saw them sitting on top of a van removing their costumes. A few people were milling around them, so we went to take a closer look. It astonished me to discover it was teenagers underneath these breathtaking figures. I asked one of them, "Was it difficult to learn walking on stilts?"
He nodded. "It takes a lot of physical strength. We practice all the time, at least once a week after school."
I mentioned the awe they inspire and wanted to know if they feel it too. "Yes," he said. "Sometimes when we start dancing, it's like something else takes over and we just go nuts."

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