Stephanie Kanhai portrays Sweet Waters of Africa, designed by artist Alan Vaughan. The portrayal went on to become the 2015 Carnival Queen, a rare win for a stilt-walking masquerade in Trinidad.

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Crossing the River

A Moko Jumbie mas about migration, loss, survival, redemption

By SHEREEN ANN ALI. Originally published in the T&T Guardian, February 11, 2015.

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Mas artist Alan Vaughan

“Moko walked on stilts across the Atlantic in the wake of the slave ships.
The Spirit reinvented itself in broken rhythms;
it fertilised the land with its blood;
it seeped like smoke through unnoticed cracks and changed its shape.
It disguised itself in clothes whose cut spoke a secret language,
and it danced at crossroads, shorelines, and on the banks of rivers.”

(TouchDSky)

The small mas band TouchDSky is presenting a moko jumbie mas this year “for all the diaspora peoples, in recognition of their suffering, and in celebration of the echoes of their voices.” The band has its own mythology. Its king, for instance, called The Fisherman Of Souls, wears a ribbed canoe on his head, and his arms control a skein of oceans, waving yards of billowing blue iridescent fabric on which abstract fish leap. This soul fisher has “… crossed the waters and skies with the trade-winds,” catching in his nets the souls of the lost, “which had turned into flying fish of silver and gold.” 

Other moko jumbie characters, each with their own story, include the Sweet Waters of Africa, Conjure-man, Sea-Line Woman, The Flying African, and Black Indian.

Led by Adrian Young, with designer Alan Vaughan and band directors Jonadiah Gonzales and Vinny Ramdin, TouchDSky is one of three separate small bands—the others are Warriors of Hurracan and Vulgar Fraction—who are joining forces this year to play a mas under the name Black Island.  

“It’s important, as small bands, to stick together, and not be domineered by the big bands,” said TouchDSky designer Alan Vaughan.

TouchDSky will also be playing separately at different venues: Nostalgia parade on Carnival Sunday morning; the King and Queen competitions: Traditional Individuals competition; and on the road for Monday and Tuesday.

Inspired by music, literature

Alan Vaughan was hard at work bending thin canes to make a ribbed boat headpiece for his moko jumbie king when I met him. Working in a corner of the Propaganda Space’s factory floor in Belmont in late January, he sat in front of a sea of ocean-blue voile. Tall wooden stilts rested in one corner, next to stiff cocoyea bundles, drapes of cloth and recycled materials including bits from a wedding dress veil, a silver sequined outfit and rolls of corrugated cardboard. On the nearby table lay a sewing machine he’d borrowed from someone’s mum.

“I love this,” said Vaughan as he listened to Nina Simone sing See Line Woman on his laptop. A folk song from the American South, it’s believed to have begun as a 19th century seaport song about sailors and prostitutes. 

For Vaughan, it suggests strong, survivor women, and it’s helped inspire him.

Music, literature and history have all inspired Vaughan to design this year’s TouchDSky mas. The band’s moko jumbie queen, for instance, crosses the stage to the sounds of Ella Andall’s powerful Orisha song Oshun Karele. South African music, soca and jazz were influences. And the whole idea of Crossing the River came to him from the 1993 award-winning novel of the same name written by Caryl Phillips, a novel that’s been called “a fearless reimagining of the geography and meaning of the African diaspora” (The Village Voice).

The title Crossing the River is a metaphor for many things: death, struggle, and transcendence, for instance. Crossing the River can refer to crossing the Atlantic—the pain of the Middle Passage—or on a more personal level, to navigating the traumatic currents of one’s own life, learning how to survive or transcend events that can be physically, culturally, or spiritually shattering. 

“There are incredibly difficult passages in your life,” said Vaughan: “…Your life is a journey, and somehow your spirit is still there, it refuses to be beaten down; if it survives the passage then it finds a new world.”

How it all began

“Back when I was about eight, I made a boat with bits of twigs from a hedgerow, and sellotape” said Vaughan. His delight in making things has never left him.

As an adult, a friend of his came to live in Trinidad; so Vaughan visited him here—and then became hooked on T&T mas. Since then, Vaughan has come for T&T Carnival every year for the past 20 years. 

Born in Kenya, Africa on the equator (his father was in the army, and they moved a lot), Vaughan left home and went to art school in the UK where he trained in sculpture and earned a BA in Fine Art (and later, a Masters). He’s since worked continuously as an artist, painting, sculpting, and doing community projects. He currently lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northeast England.

As an artist, he said he’s worked with people who are marginalised—working class communities in the UK who are struggling to improve their neighbourhoods, refugees from war, poverty and political persecution, young offenders, and, for many years, people with mental health problems. “I worked on a psychiatric ward and founded as a charity a studio space especially for people with significant mental health issues… All of this really feeds into the mas-making process,” he said.

Vaughan first started playing mas with Peter Minshall in 1995. And he confessed: “I’m a really quiet, shy person, but put a costume on me and I can transform.

“I love the way T&T Carnival unfolds on the street, being in touch with traditions…, but also not being afraid to use contemporary things… It’s a mas that moves your spirit,” he said.

 

Broke but determined

Adrian Young and Alan Vaughan first collaborated about three years ago. In 2012, Young placed fourth in the King of Carnival costume contest wearing an organic, evocative costume designed by Vaughan called The Crow. Vaughan recalled: “A small group of us built the costume… We sewed and tied bits of bush and grass to it …It went up against such huge costumes that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and we never had such resources…and he performed it so well, capturing a lot of people’s hearts.” Though it didn’t win, it had its own haunting, almost shamanistic power.

The next year, they decided to bring out their first formal moko jumbie mas band, Mokos of the Revolution, with a King portraying Ligahoo—Nightmare of the Planters. The band was small—just eight people, mostly youth of 18. “We didn’t even have a mas camp. Just a tiny room; no money whatsoever,” said Vaughan. And then two of their stilt walkers left to join UniverSoul Circus (an American touring circus based in Atlanta, Georgia)—a wonderful opportunity for the young men; but pressure for the band.

But still, TouchDSky was born.

The TouchDSky band has grown to 15 members this year, mostly young men and three women, who live in and around San Fernando. Most learned to stilt-walk under Junior Bisnath, who runs the San Fernando School of the Arts and Culture. Despite challenges of money, talent loss, finding a mas camp venue, and frustratingly labyrinthine local Carnival bureaucracy, the band persists and grows.

“It is about challenging oppression,” says Vaughan, “…shifting perceptions, recognising our histories but not being constrained by other people's versions of them. 

“Our moko jumbies truly inhabit and bring alive their portrayals, and become more than just a stick walker in a costume. At the moments of heightened drama, such as on the big stage or in the competitions, these points are often so intense and ecstatic that they are actually crying with emotion afterwards. They can be truly cathartic, spiritual moments.” 

Original, hand-made designs

TouchDSky interprets these ideas through moko jumbies dressed like tall, joyful characters navigating the ocean. The costume materials are not obnoxiously glitzy, or expensive, or made-in-China imports; they’re mostly hand-made and locally sourced, and include lots of found and recycled materials. 

The costumes are a blend of impressionistic colour and simple form. The cloth elements possess a rakish, deliciously fluid quality as the fabric moves with the tall mas players on stilts. There is minimal structure apart from a light metal backpack to support the standards: it’s more about the mobility of the performance.

Said Vaughan: “Since first coming to Trinidad I’ve always loved moko jumbies. I love how they just appear out of nowhere, and how they move in a kind of scary way…..they always look a bit dangerous! I’ve loved that kind of edginess about them. So I was very fortunate three years ago to be asked to design costumes for Junior Bisnath in San Fernando. That’s what really kicked me off. 

“That’s one of the strengths of a moko jumbie mas … they’re free to walk, inhabiting the costume….it’s like a living sculpture.”

"Crossing the River is a metaphor for many things: death, struggle and transcendence, for instance. Crossing the River can refer to crossing the Atlantic—the pain of the Middle Passage—or on a more personal level, to navigating the traumatic currents of one’s own life, learning how to survive or transcend events that can be physically, culturally, or spiritually shattering."
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 Jonadiah Gonzales plays Fisherman of Souls during Carnival 2015.