Ali Sylvester and Najja Codrington, the principal leaders of the renown stilt dancing troupe known as the Brooklyn Jumbies, sit on the stoop of a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone relating the merits of their mutual fire breathing techniques.
The Jumbies are stewards of African diasporic culture and traditions. The two-ness of “Jumby” — it means “ghost” in the Afro-Caribbean, but serves as a substitute for “stilt walkers” — at once pertains to its divinations of the African chthonic realm, while also signifying the humanness of a Carnival masquerade, or “mas.’”
Somewhere in Derek Walcott’s Omeros the poet beautifully describes Jumbies, who oftentimes stand twenty feet tall, as “lightning-walking” across a West Indian sky. Stilts for Walcott, as they are for anyone attuned to their totemic importance, function like above ground roots — connecting the undead with the rituals of the ancestral African world.
The Brooklyn Jumbies, who in this interview bear testament to the cultural richness of stilts, have performed internationally, imparting knowledge of the diasporic arts to countless individuals. Recently the Jumbies were one of the subjects of anthropologist/artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s Transcommunality exhibition at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Barbata’s most significant collaboration with the Jumbies occurred during Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2012. Wearing Barbata’s specially tailored extra-long suits, the Jumbies paraded around Zuccotti Park masquerading as literal titans of the financial world. Their performance was a magnificently curated tongue-in-cheek protest of economic disparity in America. The Jumbies began an interview with Full Stop discussing effective modes of nonviolent protests–despite forceful police tactics–at Occupy and elsewhere in the States.
Today, as America yet again undertakes one of her periodic crusades of racial injustice, an examination of our conscious radical artists is crucial to consider.
Najja Codrington: A lot of problems in society you can meet in one of two ways: you can get the hood behind you and meet the problem by force, like N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” Some Ferguson, Missouri type shit. Or you can be nonviolent. How can you be nonviolent and effective? Not effective in terms of success, but affecting people. We went to Occupy Wall Street to affect people. What we did on Wall Street didn’t solve any problems. But it was effective. We weren’t just protesting financiers. We were also trying to calm everyone down.
Spiritually, traditional African stiltwalkers — the Chakaba — actually look out for the village, either by foreseeing problems, or handling the problem by doing something to calm the village down. That’s what we went down to Occupy for.
I’ve seen police drag people, fight people. They want somebody to hit them. Most of the things, when we do social art, is not legal. We just kinda do it. You gotta get permits, etc. But we just did it. We’ve had issues where police have knocked us down off the stilts. Handcuffs. Jail. It’s intimidating for the police. We all big and twenty-five feet tall! Sometimes they’ll ask us to leave and the fence will be right there and we’ll just step right over the fence. And everybody’ll start laughing. Even the police! Sometimes they’ll think it’s funny if we step over a fence. Other times they’ll be like, “You making me look stupid?? Get em!!!”
When Occupy happened we wanted to do something to protest income disparity. The costumes aren’t costumes. They’re real suits! We acting like robber barons. We giving out little gold coins, playing “Money, Money, Money.” All these things that we’re doing is a statement. We calm the police down cause they looking at us. Even the protesters put down their megaphones and were oohing and aahing.
That was just after we decided to split away from doing just traditional jump up. We made the decision that we’re going to do more than just parties and fêtes. We’re gonna be more socially active. Laura Anderson Barbata was the major key in us taking the plunge into the social art world.
Ali Sylvester: We ended up meeting Barbata at the Halloween Parade in 2007. She’s a professor, an artist, an anthropologist. She does things all over the world in different media. But she’s out there in her studio baking us stuff. She made us quesadillas on the spot! Laura helped us get our art social. For people to take us more seriously, we needed to get our art social, get into the social realm.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport: Let’s backtrack from Occupy. How did you guys first get started?
Ali: Carnival is part of the culture. Whether it’s in Trinidad, Barbados, wherever else. Then you just jump up from there. I used to do Carnival and my mother would bring me out as a child, you know, and that’s the way it was.
I was in the mas’ thing since small. My mother was always — growing up in Trinidad — in the mas’ camps, making mas’. She migrated to New York, but she kept going back. I been going back and forth, and learning how to use glue like every kid in the mas’ camp in the West Indies. So I’m always playing mas’ from Trinidad up to New York — doing the mas’ thing on Eastern Parkway, going through all the years, this and that.
One day in Trinidad I seen the kids on stilts. I was always heavy set, and there’s no heavy set people walking on stilts. Always smaller people. But I felt it in my heart. So after I seen that, a mask designer, a regular guy, made me a cross stilt, and I brought them back to Brooklyn and teach myself that way.
I’m doing it in my living room. I didn’t learn in Trinidad, I learned it in Brooklyn. I just got the stilts from Trinidad…Bedroom to living room. Watch out TVs! Mother’s going crazy; I’m hitting the chandelier. You know, full works! So after going through those stages, of course when you come here you learn something new, everybody wants to try. So after teaching myself and learning and having this passion for stilts, I was teaching kids on my block. And then Najja came on in ’98.
Andrew: Najja, how did you learn?
Najja: I learned, actually, on the traditional African side. Cause my family, we have both sides of the coin — from the Caribbean and the African side. We do a lot of traditional African dance and drum, and do a lot of Caribbean arts. I would grow up playing mas’ or jumping up, and then still be doing African dance and drum. The two are hand in hand. The Middle Passage — all of this is just different parts of that story. As a kid, Jumby isn’t always available to you. It was obscure. If you had ten bands, you had ten bands jumping up playing mas’, regardless of what it was. But when you see Jumby it’s like, “Whoa, this is crazy, I wanna do that.” But it’s hard to see cause it’s not so popular. Jumbies, they kept to themselves. This is where a lot of the culture dies. You have somebody who knows it and knows it well — all the aspects: how to build, how to dance, etc. But they don’t want to teach. For instance, with Ali in Trinidad, the stilt walkers he saw when he was little shoulda been like, “Look, this kid is coming from quite far, I want to show him everything.” But they didn’t! They didn’t even build him real stilts! They slapped together two pieces of wood.
Two things could happen: Ali could have been dissuaded from that. Coulda said, “You know what, bump this, these guys are too…whatever.” Or, he could take it and bastardize it. Ali, not knowing a thing about stilt walking, coulda showed somebody else who didn’t know what it “meant” to stilt walk. So now it’s not even the real deal — and it’s dangerous. And Ali could say to his neighbor, “Yo, this teacher from Trinidad said this is the way to do it.” As a teacher I know now you have to be careful of what you teach and how you teach. And its snowballs out. By the time it gets ten lengths, you’re like, “What is this?? What is this?” And with diasporic cultural arts this happens a lot. A lot of this isn’t written down. Things are passed down orally. But that’s the reason why Ali and I clicked — cause something like this is in your heart. Even spiritually, I want this, I want this so bad, I’m going to do whatever it takes to do this. Even in the living room.
Ali: Yea, no support, nothing. On my own. Moms’ does mas’ but she don’t know nothing about stilts. Building this on my own. From young. Fourteen. Just doing it. That’s why I feel like it’s for me. Look at how far it took me. I’m 34 now. I’m traveling. Nobody thought that stilts would carry me this far.
Najja: The same thing happened with me. I wanted to do it. Traditionally, like I said, it’s called Chakaba. They have different names for it obviously depending on which country you’re in, but where I learned, in the Senegambia region, they call it Chakaba. And it’s like a mask-dance, you don’t know who it is, fully covered. Nothing is exposed. It’s strict. There’s no women. You have to be initiated.
Andrew: Is there a sacred element to what you guys do now?
Najja: Definitely. Don’t want to compare us to anybody else, but that’s one of the ways which separates what we do. We are stilt dancers. There’s a difference between stilt walkers and stilt dancers. Stilt walkers you see in Las Vegas. In the circus. They use sheetrock stilts, with a foot on ’em. If I were to put you on those stilts you could do it right now, standing in one place. The stilts that we use are no bigger than a silver dollar on the bottom so you have to balance. That’s just the physical part of it. The spiritual part of it — the music you do it to, the reasons you’re doing it, that changes the whole dynamics of the dancing. For instance, when it’s Carnival time and you’re dancing doing jerks and stabs, freestyling, you like “Yea, girl!”, it’s a different feel from the spiritual stuff — which has gyrations and stuff, too — but it’s on a different plane.
When I met Ali in ’98. I had just come back from Africa. And when I was there I had to go through the rituals. This is how the spirituality connection comes into play; I wanted to learn it on the African side. Have you ever seen Last Dragon? Where Bruce Leroy was like teach me some moves? And the teachers kept sending him to get the fortune cookie and come back? My teacher in Brooklyn kept saying go read about this and come back. Go do this and come back. Bring me half a cauldron of dragon’s blood with…Seriously, stuff like that. And I’m like, “Arite, if this is what it takes to do it, no problem.” But after awhile my moms’ like, “We’re gonna go to The Source.”
We have family in Africa that’s doing this for real. They in it. This is where it originates. And when I went there, they said I was too big. And they had to do certain spiritual things to see if I was ready. Then they had to go to some forest and get that certain wood, cause I had broke a couple stilts, but they said these ones, which I still have, wouldn’t break. So I did that. And I came back.
Andrew: How exactly did you two meet?
Najja: I was in Long Island playing pan, not for Jumby or anything like that. Of course, I see some kids on stilts, and I’m like, “THIS IS CRAZY!” I was teaching my own set. But we always looking for each other. If you’re an alien you always looking for another alien. Who’s out there? We didn’t have the Internet, so you had to be on the lookout or know by word of mouth. A lot of people be like, “I do stilts, I do ‘em on cans. Or I hold a stick.” So I’m like to Ali’s set, “I do them! I do stilts. I do a different style.” And they’re like, “Riiiight.” So I’m like, “Take me to your leader!” Then they show me Ali and I’m like, man, Ali’s twice my size! And the Africans telling me I’m too big. And Ali moves like a swan. You’re probably like, I gotta see this to believe it. But Ali moves more graceful, more everything. A swan on stilts. You wouldn’t believe it. And this is one of the things that we push to our kids in our band. If you put your mind to it you can do anything. Cause we do have a lot of kids who have self esteem issues who have problems with society. So they don’t fit in on the basketball court, or they don’t fit in on the football field, or they can’t dance. Those are the kids we take. Those are the kids we look for. We look for the kids that have problems, that are feeling awkward.
I met Ali and I’m like we need to do something together, and he’s actually blowing me off! He tells me he lives in Brooklyn and I said I live in Brooklyn too! We gotta hook up! And he’s like, I live on 56th and such and such, if you feel like it, come through.
To make a long story short, I was at his house at 7 in the morning the next day. I had my stilts pointed out the sun roof, 7:00, like it’s a job. It’s in the hood so people are outside. Ali’s like the kingpin over there. And everybody’s calling, “Yo, Ali! This guy’s here!” He look out the window and he’s like, “O, there’s that dude.”
Ali: And I’m thinking, “There’s that dude. He actually here.” I come outside and the whole block is out there.
Najja: And they all there! And I’m trying to show em I do it different. I do it barefoot. Totally different. Barefoot, nothing to protect your leg, just straight strap on.
Ali: He had a rope. A vine. And he’d put the ropes through his toes. It was amazing for us. Cause we used sneakers! And belts. Every kid that uses stilts in the area back then knew how to use stilts. Even if they don’t walk, they watch and they know — sneakers. Now we put Najja on the ladder and he’s putting this vine through his toes.
Najja: The block thinking this boy is gonna die. And they waiting for it! They saying shit like: “Oh I can’t wait to see this!”; “It’s over!”; “It’s a wrap!” And at the time I didn’t have rubber, nothing. The stilts just straight continental wood. Straight looking out the movies. Coming to America type shit. So I did it, and now Ali’s taking it serious enough and I have him doing it. And they all walked like I walked that day. So now we’re talking, and we started building the stilts.
Ali: And I started building him stilts like how we build ’em and we worked together on it.
Najja: We both good with our hands. We used to do it from scratch. Take the big plank of wood and shave it down. The hard way.
Ali: Gotta find the wood and make it for guys our weight. You don’t find heavy guys like us doing stilts. You don’t find heavy guys on stilts and moving. When we go to Mexico, they lift the stilt up and it feels like a car to them. “It’s too heavy!” But the way we move, it’s like paper.
Najja: And then the kids are coming. And they bringing they brother. And whoever. All people around the way. Even though we have a school, the school is really outside in the backyard. We don’t ever send kids away from the Jumbies. What was happening was, these are the same kids that could either be with us and do something positive, or maybe get out on the street and do something negative. So we always push them to be professional. And a lot of the kids that we had, a lot of them are adults with families! And they’re working. Cuz we try and teach them a trade. Not everybody’s gonna be a doctor. So basically we’re trying to help them realize how to be successful in society. You want to be self sufficient and independent. We grab them with the stilts. You don’t wanna say to a kid “I wanna teach you skills for how to be a good citizen!” You’re gonna grab them by: “Yo! We’re having fun on these stilts!” Then you can be like, “How’s school? School is good?”
Ali: I became a teacher — mentor and a teacher through this. A lot of jobs came up to me through this. Didn’t know they was coming.
Najja: And we didn’t do it for money.
Ali: It came from the heart.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport is a middle school teacher, and a writer, in Brooklyn