From the womb of our Motherland comes an ancient stilt-walking tradition
that refuses to die. And thanks to the tenacity and vision of practitioners like Willard John
(pictured), perhaps this art form never will. We call
these towering souls Mocko Jumbies. Without them, carnival would not be the same. And the spirits of
our ancestors would not know peace.
Kofi Boateng, a native of Accra, Ghana who now lives in the Virgin
Islands, once told me that this tradition "is as old as the African people themselves."
tribe, the Ashantis, call these daring stilt walkers "kaka motobis” which, he said, depict
ancestors who have returned to life.”
Luz James, the current lieutenant governor of the Virgin Islands, has
been practicing this art form for years. "It’s a hell of a feeling," he once told me,
when I worked as a writer for the Daily News. "No one can really tell you about it. You're
within your own domain."
"Although stilt masquerades historically appeared in many places
in the Caribbean, they have come to be particularly associated with the Virgin Islands," says
Robert Nichols, author of
Old Time Masquerading in the U.S. Virgin
Islands. And Virgin Islands folklore, adds Nichols, "ascribes a mocko jumbie with the
ability to interact with spirits –attracting
good ones and dispelling bad ones."
Nichols has done extensive research on masquerading in Africa, the
Caribbean and Europe. He says evidence suggests the mocko jumbie tradition had "formative
influences from the Mandinka, Mende, or related ethnic groups from the the Upper Guinea region of
Ask Virgin Islanders what the term mocko jumbie means and you'll get
different answers. The word, mocko, according to Nichols, "can be interpreted in at least four
ways: a spirit, a mocker, a sorcerer, and as belonging to the Mocko ethnic group" (of Nigeria,
West Africa). Jumbie refers to spirit.
the many interesting interpretations, writes Nichols, is one that was made by Dr. Hollis "Chalkdust"
Liverpool, a well-known Calypsonian and ethnomusicologist. "Chalkdust conceptualizes the mocko
jumbie as a diviner who oversees the village, metaphorically, he is so tall he can see what is
happening both in the present and the future."