Making mas: A mile as a moko

Moko Somokow costume designer Alan Vaughan and band member Russell Grant assists Newsday journalist Kalifa Sarah Clyne to stand and walk on stilts at the band's mas camp in Belmont. - JEFF K MAYERS
Moko Somokow costume designer Alan Vaughan and band member Russell Grant assists Newsday journalist Kalifa Sarah Clyne to stand and walk on stilts at the band's mas camp in Belmont. - JEFF K MAYERS

In week two of our Carnival series Making Mas, Kalifa Sarah Clyne continues to tell immersive stories about Carnival and the people and characters responsible for parts of TT's biggest cultural export. From the transformation into a blue devil, to rising high with moko jumbies, the Newsday will share this close look at mas. Photos by Jeff K. Mayers.

This week, the moko jumbie, featuring Moko Somokow from Belmont.

I did not fall – not on my face or on my butt. I'm stating this at the very beginning because this was the prevailing expectation of my friends and colleagues.

I steered clear of the six-foot tall stilts and kept my stilt-walking to the first-floor indoor space, surrounded by professionals, with Russell Grant – my new favourite person, as he kept me from falling – guiding me around the room.

Moko jumbies have always been an awe-inspiring element of mas. Towering over us as high as 20 feet, they are impossible to ignore and often get the attention of tourists and international media.

Though a fun and festive part of Carnival celebrations, they can seem other-worldly.

How do they walk on those stilts? They are about four inches wide.

How do they achieve that balance? Even walking on them is scary, but lifting one foot in the air for a split? Cue heart palpitations.

To answer those questions, last week, we visited Moko Somokow's Belmont mas camp to learn some techniques.

Moko Somokow band member Russell Grant assists Newsday journalist Kalifa Sarah Clyne to walk on stilts at the band's mas camp in Belmont - JEFF K MAYERS

The band's queen, Shynel Brizan, is also the 2019 Queen of Carnival, after an ethereal performance on the Queen's Park Savannah stage last February, where she portrayed Mariella Shadow of Consciousness. Brizan will be defending her title this year but not on stilts.

Last year, the band's presentation was called Palace of the Peacock. This year, they will present Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, based on the writing of Guyanese author Wilson Harris.

Costume designer Alan Vaughan said it takes a lot of people to make a moko jumbie band – not just those high up in the air. His band has around 30 members, but 20 will actually be walking stilts, while the others focus on band organisation. And there are ground walkers to help the moko jumbies manoeuvre through the streets and get up onto the stilts.

Vaughan, who learned to walk on stilts eight years ago, when he designed for another band, was the band's king last year.

Newsday journalist Kalifa Sarah Clyne chats with costume designer Alan Vaughan of Moko Somokow at the band's mas camp in Belmont. - JEFF K MAYERS

For the stilts, the best shoes, Vaughan says, have a flat sole and high top, to give support around the ankle. Feet are strapped to the stilts and then there are more straps just below the knee to hold the leg in place so that it feels almost fused to the stilts.

Soft foam sponge is placed between the knee and the stilts so that they aren't uncomfortable.

While moko jumbies make it seem easy, walking on stilts is definitely dangerous.

"Most moko jumbies have had nasty falls, and it is mostly from overextending themselves doing a trick during a performance
or because of something on the ground, like water or confetti," Vaughn explained.

Tricks include doing splits, the limbo dance and criss-crossing legs.

"Most people have broken an arm. I've broken my nose twice."

Costume designer Alan Vaughan of Moko Somokow at the band's mas camp in Belmont. - JEFF K MAYERS

But it helps that: "One of the things with moko jumbies is that everyone looks out for each other. Imagine walking on the streets, where there are holes in the road and you have to go on and come off the pavement. So you help someone with that. It is a very supportive environment."

He said while it could be dangerous, basic walking didn't pose much harm.

Good news for me and for parents of the youngsters that learn from the band. Vaughan said the band's youngest member was two years old.

Vaughn said some people take an hour before they can take steps, and some take three weeks before they're ready.

Dance the moko

I took about three minutes, on stilts that were just over a foot off the ground.

The scariest part of it was standing. While the stilts feel sturdy, they don't have a very wide circumference and that provides little comfort when looking at them.

The team of mokos at the camp told me the key thing to remember was I needed to constantly move my feet in a stepping motion. It's less of a walk than a two-step dance.

Moko Somokow costume designer Alan Vaughn and band member Russell Grant assists Kalifa Sarah Clyne to stand and walk on stilts at the band's mas camp in Belmont. - JEFF K MAYERS

Vaughn and my new best friend Grant helped me from a high chair, but – full disclosure – I resisted standing the first few attempts. My thoughts focused on the possibility of falling. What if I didn't do the stepping motion in time? What if I fell on my face?

Eventually, with encouragement, I stood up on the stilts and started the stepping motion, with Grant holding my hands. I repeated it for two minutes and then Grant said he wanted to let go of me because he felt I had found my balance.

Obviously, I gripped his hands tighter.

After he insisted I'd be fine, I grudgingly allowed him to release me and continued stepping to keep my balance. I felt myself moving backward and shifted my weight forward to compensate. I did not fall. Accomplishment! But could I move forward?

Ready to try, I followed Grant as he moved away from me, stepping about five feet forward, then I turned around and returned to my starting point.

The team seemed impressed.

Kalifa Sarah Clyne walks on stilts at the Moko Somokow mas camp in Belmont. - JEFF K MAYERS

The Somokow Carnival experience

Vaughn said really good moko jumbies are athletic and strong and have a range of different skills for performance. They sometimes use the skills in fencing displays with other moko jumbies.

The moko jumbies walk more than five miles a day on the Carnival routes. They stay on the stilts, resting sometimes on tall walls. They make the stilts themselves, and for some moko jumbies, their personal stilts are to be treated very gently and not used by others.

Moko Somokow's performances are grounded in the story that the moko jumbies walked across the Atlantic as protective spirits for enslaved Africans as they were brought to the Caribbean. Even if the band's performance theme changes, it is still grounded in that story.

Stilts at the Moko Somokow mas camp in Belmont - JEFF K MAYERS

Vaughan said, "Last year was the best spirit I've ever felt in a band. We have a lovely spirit in the band where the vision is coming to everybody and everybody is signing up to it. We want to go out there and be almost like a living painting, a living sculpture when we are on the road together."

The band started preparing last year to get materials for their presentation but Vaughan said the research can take more than a year.

Moko Somokow's launch for this year's theme will take place next Tuesday in Belmont.

Before leaving, I asked Vaughan whether he felt everyone could be a moko jumbie

"I think everyone can walk stilts," he said, "But to take it to the next level needs a lot of dedication."


"Making mas: A mile as a moko"

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