For a complete Caribbean experience you must enjoy a celebration featuring the outrageous, colorful stilted dancers known across the islands as Moko Jumbie. Rising above the crowd on stilts as high as 15 feet, they step to the beat of traditional African music, bringing good fortune to those who see them. Origins of the Moko Jumbie stretch back to ancient West African traditions, carried across the Atlantic by slaves and preserved over time by the diligence of Caribbean inhabitants. Dancers still perform on various islands today, but are most frequently associated with St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. Kitts, and Trinidad.
Africans uprooted from their homes and sent to the Caribbean carried their beliefs across the water and through centuries of slavery. One such belief was “Moko”, a West African god thought to protect his villages from harm by spotting evil spirits from the heavens. Men traditionally depicted his great height by walking on stilts. Moko was not forgotten, and emancipated slaves from Trinidad later added “Jumbie” (ghost) to the name, creating the image of a mischievous spirit walker who protected celebrations from evil. The tradition spread across the islands of the Caribbean, with each location placing its own twist on the elaborate costumes.
The modern day Moko Jumbie takes its influence from the diverse cultures of the Caribbean islands, but still remembers its African roots. The stilted dancers once traveled solo or in groups of two to the music of a small band – today, large troupes sway through the streets during parades. Costumes evolved from the traditional long dress (perhaps a European influence) to flowing, brightly colored pants, shirts, headdresses, and sometimes masks. The dancers often decorate their stilts, which can range in height from 5 feet to 15. Moko Jumbies came close to vanishing after the early 1900’s, but returned in full force over the past several years, aided by the founding of schools dedicated to training young people in the ancient traditions, and breathed new life into Carnival celebrations, particularly the famous Carnival in Trinidad two days before Ash Wednesday.
Travel to the Virgin Islands during a festival to observe the skilled and graceful movements of these iconic figures, current representations of ancient African beliefs. Many visitors come during USVI Carnivals, which take place in the winter months around Christmas and New Years and proceeds until Lent. For a guaranteed Moko Jumbie sighting, visit parades in the major cities of Christiansted and Frederiksted in St. Croix, Basseterre in St. Kitts, or Port-of-Spain in Trinidad. These places serve as backdrops to days of dancing, music, eating, and general revelry.
Moko Jumbies frequent many other festivals, with dates and names varying by island. Emancipation Day in Trinidad, Jump Up street parties on St. Croix, and several more feature the dancers – when planning a trip, check months including festivities for your island of choice. If your plans fail to correspond with a major festival or parade local Caribbean shows often present some Moko Jumbie on a smaller scale along with displays of limbo, a steel pan band and more. Create unforgettable memories by observing this African tradition, where the old and new meld together into a surreal experience and bring a sense of mystery to your Caribbean vacation.