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   st. kitts drama & folklore groups   

    The Actors | The Clown | The Bull | Moko-Jumbies | Masquerade

    When one hears '"The Actors", one is most likely to think of a group of performers taking part in a stage play. To Kittitians "The Actors" is a group of acrobats engaged in a series of daring somersaults over a large upturned garden fork. To complete this act, a big stone is placed on the chest of one of the acrobats and is broken with a sledge hammer.


    This 17 member group, the St Peter's Actors like so many other groups of actors comes out of the Parish of St Peter's were this traditional folk dance is believed to have originated. It is said that the slaves working in this area, under the rule of the then French Governor, Du Poincy, performed these daring stunts to his delight and that of his guests.


    The "big drum band" comprising of a kettle drum, a bass drum and fife provides musical accompaniment.



    More commonly referred to as St Kitts, the island of St Christopher has a rich legacy of folk traditions. The language, culinary habits, artistic and recreational pursuits of the large masses of the people might not have had the attention of historians as have the settlement and exploits of the conquerors, but they nevertheless remain a testimony to the creativity, adaptability and endurance of the people of this tiny island.


    Along with the Mock Jumby, Masquerades, Mummies and the Bull, to name a few of our traditional folklore groups, the Clowns are part of our folk culture that finds expression at Christmas time in a festival that has been celebrated for hundreds of years. We, in St Kitts, still celebrate what we now term Carnival in December, a series of competitions, shows, and street activities that culminates on New Year's Day when street parades and performances climax in a grand finale. Although Carnival now incorporates masked bands costumed to depict themes universal and local, the true essence of the Kittitian celebration manifests itself in our traditional folklore groups who perform on the street as they have for generations.


    The Clown troupe is a somewhat unique phenomena in the English speaking Caribbean and is thought to be a legacy of the renowned French Governor Lonvillier de Poincy, a gentleman who ruled French interests in the Caribbean in the 17th Century and who resided in his Chateau in the hills overlooking Basseterre. It was there he held court and the magnificence of his hospitality and the entertainment he provided were celebrated by visitors to the island.


    The characteristic costume of the European court jester is transformed in the Kittitian Clown into a beautiful flowing suit, bellowing as the several dancers execute a series of intricate movements. Performed by the descendants of African slaves who make up vast majority of the population of the island, the sinuous and harmonious body movement of the dancers blend with the String Band rhythms, the musical accompaniment for this particular troupe and the elegance and grace as the dancers as they serpentine behind and between each other is a spectacle to behold. The pink wiremess mask worn as part of the costume, hiding the face of the performer, apparently depicts the European, and is a feature of almost all the local folk dance characters. The sounds of bells and the crack of the Hunter, a leather whip carried by each performer, punctuates the rhythms of the String Band, binding closer the dancers to the musicians.


    Early in the century, this troupe began to take on shades of North American culture with the inclusion of Cake Walk and Japanese Girl characters. Performed mainly by men, the groups might have forty (40) to fifty (50) members, some Kittitians remembering times when there were groups eighty (80) strong. There was even a time when little boys longed to get a gift of a clown suit so as to identify with the splendor of he troupes at Christmas time. Men migrating to North America and England took their culture with them and clown troupes have paraded at Labour Day parades in New York, CARIBANA in Toronto and Nottinghill in London.


    With the exodus of Kittitians, especially in the 1950's and 60's, this rich cultural expression dwindled as more and more emigrants left to take up residence overseas. Costumed individuals would stalk the streets in vein in search of a clown troupe to join. The ascendancy of the Clown fell as did the lustre of his lustre of first half of this century when this troupe flourished as a major force among the folklore group at Christmas time. As a new appreciation for the rich legacies of our ancestor takes hold, the re-emergence of the Clown troupe could be the symbol of what can be regained and won if we truly wish to look deeply into our heritage and revitalize the legacies of generations past. Christmas 1995 saw the appearance of a clown troupe once again on the streets of Basseterre, when the strains of the String Band and the beauty of the costume gave hope that the Clown had not in truth disappeared but was reawakening from a long slumber. May the restoration of this once vibrant form of our folklore take place and live on for the appreciation and enjoyment of generations to come.
    The Bull Play

    Somewhere in the early 1920's emerged a comic script, which from all accounts, was an exaggeration of an incident said to have taken place on one of the countryside sugar estates on St. Kitts known as Belmont. This plantation was owned by an Englishman,


    Arthur Davis, now deceased, who was brother of one of the early Basseterre Sugar Factory managers, also deceased, and known as Basil Davis. The older heads tell that Arthur Davis had procured a stud bull for the estate in a young steer, but as it developed he engaged some estate hands to look after it. It so happened that the animal also developed in fierceness and as it made to gore one of the herdsmen, he stabbed it. The bull fell down and thinking it was dead, he reported to Mr. Davis, and he brought in a veterinary surgeon who treated it and it survived.


    The play which follows shows the extent to which the matter was stretched, and continues today to be one of the surviving relics of former Christmas street entertainment. The cast is made up of eight players as follows: Bull, Arthur Davis, Sweetie, Oak, Sifter, Dr. Pick-Me-Heel, Backanash the Dog and a Police Sergeant. Musical accompaniment is provided from tambourine, chopping reel, bar-horn, triangle, shackpan, and bamboo fife.


    The person playing the bull is usually attired in a bright red suit, and on his head he wears a pair of dangerous-looking cattle horns fitted into a removable headgear, which is also attached to a wire-mesh mask in the shape of an ox's head. The waistline of this performer is expected to be of a flexible nature in order to portray the gyrations of a sex-crazed animal as he swings his stiffened tail on his backside.


    Except for the doctor and the sergeant the others are bedecked in multicoloured patterns of dress adorned with bells and mirrors, and each player wields a whip of plaited cattle skin.

    Stilt walker or Moko-Jumbies as they are called locally, have been passed on from African mythology, particularly in the Ghana area. It is believed that this custom made its way to our shores through the slave who were brought here.


    The name Moko, though its origin is not clear, is said to be the name of the God of Vengeance while on the other hand it is believed that the word MOKO is a corruption of the word MACAW. The macaw is a very tall palm tree covered with thorns and it is felt that the Moco-Jumbies may be trying to resemble it, especially so, since their head piece is symbolic of the heart of the macaw plant when it is in bloom.


    Many theories have surrounded this dance and although we may never know which is true, one cannot deny that seeing a person, dancing without fear on stilts, six to eight foot tall, provides much amusement and thrill to its onlookers.


    The "Chagredanies Mock Jumbies" hails from Sandy Point, which is no surprise sine most of the Moco-Jumbies have all come out of this area for as far back as one can remember.

    Masquerade in St Kitts can be described as an artform created by the syncretic coming together of peoples of African and European descent over a period of 300 years.


    The earliest account of the masquerade in St Kitts was reported by Alfred Williams and English historian and cultural observer. Ids eyewitness account as early as the 1890's noted that the masquerade wore feathered headdresses and leggings and carried tomahawks. Antonio Williams, an English tourist, in her diary entitled "A Tour Through the West Indies 1908 - 1909," also described the masquerade dancers she saw wearing tall peacock feathered headdresses, masks, trousers and long-sleeved shirts. Over the trousers or leggings, she described skirt-aprons that were completely fringed and reached just above the knees. She added that the entire costume was decorated with bangles, mirrors and ribbons.


    Migration of people from St Kitts - Nevis during the 1920's saw the spread of the artform to other areas of the Caribbean, including Bermuda and the Dominican Republic, where it is well established today. According to Dr Vincent Cooper, the tradition seems to have been stronger in Nevis, the more aural of the two islands, and rural towns such as Cayon and Phillips' which have longstanding ties with Nevis provided the breeding ground from which the artform flourished and spread to other areas on St Kitts.


    Dance experts have identified elements of European and African dance forms, which include the "Wild Dance," the Waltz, and Quadrille, the Rhumba, the Fertility Dance, the Fine Dance, the Jig and the Boillola. The Masquerade dancers are usually accompanied by a group of musicians playing a fife, a kettle drum and a big drum, and African Caribbean rhythm patterns.


    As we enjoy the spectacle of colours, music and dance of the masquerade this Christmas, let us all salute the memory of Rupert Samuel for his outstanding contribution to this important aspect of our folklore.


    The dance 'forms of the masquerades exemplify elements of African and European genres. The French seemed to have had a large influence, especially during the governorship of PhiIlipe de Poincy who is reputed to have hosted troupes of dancers from France at his chateau at Fountain Estate. The names of three of the six dances of the masquerades can be attributed to French origins. These are the "Quadrille", the "Fine", and the "Jig" which is said to home come from the French word "gigue".


    The "Quadrille" which has its roots.-in 17th-Century France is the first dance and danced by couples to a slow, structured pace defined by the country and elegance of the various dance figures.


    The "Fine" which is the second dance is decidedly faster and demands greater skill as the dancers dance on one foot towards each other meeting in the centre of the ring and performs a fertility dance which is traceable to the mating dance of Africa.


    The real spectacle in dance comes when the masquerades break into a frenzy of "Wild Mas" throwing their tomahawks into the air much to the delight of onlookers.


    The "Jig" introduces a new dance position where the right foot hooked behind the left foot, the dancer displays his skill with the tomahawk. This dance follows right into the "Boillola" another dance movement where the tomahawk is held between their legs while the dancers jump and clap to the music, moving from side to side.


    The mimicry of Europeans in dance is perhaps best reflected in the "Waltz" where the dancers pair off into couples and perform simple ballroom dance steps to a moderately fast triple meter. The curtains come down on the dances with an appreciative bow to the audience. "A so ee go".


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