Behind The Mas
“The gayelle is really the end of a process. It is a process of adulthood training, at the end of which there would be ritual combat. Here the fighter would feel pain and process it in a particular way. The gayelle is really an exam, but somehow, it has become the whole process.”
– Rondel “Benji” Benjamin, founder, Bois Academy
IN THE RING, the gayelle, Benji is a study of quiet deadliness and confidence. His glasses and understated demeanour are at odds with the bravé dangé of what we have come to associate with a typical stickfighter. He does not dance so much as he prowls. He studies his opponents and draws from his knowledge of Asian and African martial arts to defeat them.
In our training sessions for Kambule, it is clear that people sense this. He stands alone, in the centre of a circle of more than 30 people, but few dare to really challenge him.
The stickfight tradition or kalinda is complex, spiritual and still largely misunderstood in TT. It is said that the practice came here in the latter part of the 19th century when there was an influx of indentured Africans to fulfil the labour needs of the plantations.
Prof Maureen Warner-Lewis documents the arrival of various African peoples such as Igbo, Sobo, Coromanti, Fula, Hausa and Mandingo. The larger groups seemed to come from the Congo and Yoruba ethnic groupings.
In some ways, the centres of kalinda correspond to the settlement of Africans in communities such as Port of Spain, Belmont, Arouca, Talparo, Sangre Grande, Gasparillo, and Moruga. Many of the chants may be traced to Yoruba and Congo origins, while the clothing worn by stick-fighters and the Carnival character neg jadin contain distinctly Congo elements.
Across the English, French and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and in parts of South America, there is evidence of dance and combat using short lengths of wood. Research demonstrates links between a warrior style of dance from Haiti called kalinda and war drills from the Congo in Africa.
In TT, through the impact of French culture we call kalinda bois, French for wood. We also use the terms gayelle and poui, the preferred wood. It explains why shouts of “Poui! Poui!” or “Bois!” are part of our ritual of combat.
Influences in the costuming today may be traced to Haitian rara carnival bands, featuring strips of cloth dropping from the waist of the pants, shaped by African ritual clothing. It must be remembered that large numbers of Haitians fled here and to other parts of the Caribbean during the period of revolution from 1791-1804.
Mirrors were a significant aspect of their wear. At home, our stick-fighters include the mirror on the chest in the shape of a heart, called the fol and the strips on the knee-length pants, kandal. According to Warner-Lewis, kandal came from kandalala or death shroud.
Death is part of the language and understanding of kalinda. “Mooma Mooma, yuh son in the grave ahready,/ Take ah towel, ban yuh belly.” It is intertwined with resistance to oppression, defence of cultural expression and ancestral linkages. “Moan children/ Moan rebellion/ Rebellion and war.”
Spiritual preparation is integral to stickfighting. Practitioners will tell you that prayer is important, whatever your religious beliefs. That chant, for instance, evokes the Baptist tradition, a reference to what they call the “moaning ground,” a period of fasting, prayer and internalisation before a major undertaking. Before battle, stickfighters isolate themselves, bond with their weapon, take ritual baths and refrain from sexual activity.
Kalinda is thus about self-realisation, but it is about community empowerment as well. As a sport, it holds great potential for helping young people to manage aggression and for communities to restore eldership and reclaim a sense of togetherness.
Benji talks about how it has strengthened his problem-solving skills and allowed him to negotiate challenging spaces. “Stickfight is about training the mind and body under high stakes and high risk. It is about being able to be your best self.”
Sadly, this indigenous sport remains on the outside of national consciousness, because it is still largely viewed through a colonial lens. The fighters are trotted out at Carnival time, spectators shout for blood, and after the last buss-head, the fighters fade until the next Carnival.
The times demand that we go behind the glamour of battle and reach into the quiet process for guidance. Kalinda must help us win the battle for our youth and our nation. The gayelle must be our training ground.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN