(Originally published at OnePaper.com)
It couldn’t be carnival without them. The fanciful figures, which loom high above the crowd dancing in defiance of evil, are rooted deep in local culture.
Mocko jumbies, masked and majestic, symbolize good spirits, which chase away the bad. Becoming a mocko jumbie, doesn’t just happen. The honor of performing at carnival and other celebrations must be earned through dedicated hard work.
Ask Alli Paul what it takes, and be prepared to listen. Paul is a mocko jumbie master who has been performing for 40 years. Paul, who is director of consumer protection for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs was 12 years old when he and a friend snuck under a house and peeked into a workshop to discover how stilts were made.
In the late 1950’s Magnus Farrel was the leading mocko jumbie, and the troupe would often scare children and chase them away. Paul says he was more intrigued than frightened and attempted to walk and then dance on stilts. After Farrel and another master, named Richardson retired; Paul was able to take center stage and began to teach his brothers and sisters how to be mocko jumbies. Paul says until he taught his sister, it was just boys and men. No girls were ever allowed.
Eventually Paul started his own troupe of family and friends, and these people later splintered into other troupes. He is proud of the part he played in reviving mocko jumbies in the 1960’s, and observes that no other Caribbean islands have the quality or quantity of troupes that exist in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Now 53, Paul is still performing and his Alli Paul Original Mocko Jumbie dancers are in demand at various special events. He stresses that mocko jumbies are much different from stilt walkers. He says they are stilt dancers, a true-spirited aspect of West Indian culture. And he emphasizes the necessity of masks, which he says are part of the spiritual aspect that must be kept alive.