Shynel Brizan: Walking Tall

Shynel Brizan describes being a moko jumbie as a true spiritual experience. Photo by Jeff K Mayers
Shynel Brizan describes being a moko jumbie as a true spiritual experience. Photo by Jeff K Mayers

On a clear night, Carnival Queen Shynel Brizan, 26, puts on her moko jumbie stilts to sit on the roof of her Pleasantville home. There she watches the stars as she contemplates the many blessings she's received since she first tried stilt-walking ten years ago, forever changing her life.

"I could lie down and watch the stars up there. You get a nice view," she told Newsday on Friday at Moko Sõmõkow's mas camp at the corner of Erthig Road, Belmont.

Brizan captivated the audience at the Queen's Park Savannah during the Kings and Queens shows when she portrayed Mariella, Shadow of Consciousness. This year was the first time she made it into the finals, after competing twice before. She was part of the mini-band's Palace of the Peacock presentation, inspired by the late Guyanese writer Wilson Harris.

Many people believe the moko jumbie is more than just a mas. The National Carnival Commission's website says, "Moko Jumbie derives its name from West African tradition. The 'Moko' is an Orisha (God) of Retribution. The term 'Jumbie' was added post-slavery. The Moko Jumbie was regarded as a protector whose towering height made it easier to see evil before ordinary men."

It's no wonder Brizan describes being a moko jumbie as a true spiritual experience.

Shynel Brizan embraces the life of a moko, hanging up her boxing gloves for stilts. Photo by Kerwin Pierre

"I can't tell anyone what it's like to be a moko jumbie. I always tell them they have to experience it themselves.

"But it's a nice feeling, 'cause you're high in the air. You're so high you feel like a real moko jumbie 'cause you can see so far away. You can see if there is any evil approaching."

Brizan began stilt-walking at 16, when she was a national boxer. One day in September, after training, her coach introduced her to Junior Bisnath of Kaisoka School of Moko Jumbies, who asked if she would be interested in stilt-walking. Brizan fell in love.

She learned how to walk on one-foot-high stilts – and was terrified. Bisnath taught learners how to balance by marching in place.

"After the marching practice, we came off the wall and made steps. I was frightened, and held on to the sides, but after a while I got accustomed," she said.

The first few times she was on stilts she fell, too, but that didn't deter her. After a while, she forgot about falling and embraced the bliss that walking so high brought her. She traded in her boxing gloves for stilts and never looked back.

Now she says, "When you're up there, the last thing on your mind is falling. Most times when I'm on stilts, it's to show people the beauty of a moko jumbie, and most of all to please people. They love moko jumbies."

Stilt-walking is a special sought-after skill which has given Brizan a number of opportunities, including walking in the parade for Olympic gold medallist Keshorn Walcott and dancing for the queen at Queen's Hall for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2009. She gets steady work every year from the Soca Monarch competition. She's danced on stage for SuperBlue, Mr Legs, KI and Devon Matthews. This year she performed at Machel Monday for 3canal.

"As a moko jumbie, you're most likely to be in almost everything," she said.

For the Kings and Queens show, Brizan said she didn't focus on the competition. She cared more about showing off her mas, because that's the only occasion moko-mas costumes are highlighted on stage.

Shynel Brizan shows WMN the trophy she earned as Queen of Carnival for her portrayal of Mariella, Shadow of Consciousness. Photo by Kerwin Pierre

"Yes, we knew it was a competition, but I don't see it as a competition. This is the time for us to show our mas on the big stage...I wasn't concerned with the competitions. I was focusing on the performance."

Heavy rain drenched the stage for the Kings and Queens show, making it slippery and dangerous for the moko jumbies. Brizan said the rain was "a big problem" and she was afraid she would fall. She took small steps and restricted herself from dancing as freely and doing as many tricks on stage as she normally would.

But then: "When I was on stage it was like the Lord guided my two feet. I was frightened, but when I went on stage I got comfortable."

Brizan describes the moko jumbie community as a supportive, tight-knit family. She's observed young people who could fall into the life of crime instead find support in the moko community.

"There are a lot of boys who are struggling out there, smoking and doing nonsense. They are running with the wrong crowd. But then they discover stilts and it saves them."

Brizan said the boys are exposed to many people and many opportunities.

"They like to go plenty places and meet people. We treat each other like brothers and sisters, and there is a special love. There are a lot of people who are under so much stress, but when they come here they feel so happy to be around and feel so special. We have a group of people who look out for one another."

Shynel Brizan and her son, Prince. She told WMN, 'I see motherhood as always being there for him, loving him, nurturing him...' Photo by Rachael Espinet

Brizan has a 14-month-old son named Prince Sylvan with Moko Sõmõkow's Carnival King runner-up, Tekel Sylvan. She credits her moko family with supporting her and taking care of Prince while she was on the road.

"Being a mother is nice, but very exhausting having him around for Carnival. I am so grateful for the help of everyone in Moko Sõmõkow."

She describes herself as a full-time mother who is health-conscious about what she puts into her body and her baby's.

"I am a breastfeeding mother. I don't believe in giving him formula. I think it is healthier. I tried to give him regular formula and he wasn't drinking it, so I decided to keep on breastfeeding him until he is ready to stop. It helps with bonding and it protects against breast cancer," she said.

Motherhood means a lot to Brizan, and it reflected in her Carnival Queen presentation this year. In Palace of the Peacock, Mariella stands for many things, including a mother.

"In the book, Mariella was the the love of one of the characters...She was many different things in one, but she was also a mother.

"That was the thing I connected to the most. I took on the mother role. I see motherhood as always being there for him, loving him, nurturing him, teaching him the do's and don'ts, but most importantly, loving him."


"Shynel Brizan: Walking Tall"

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