Cultural Revival

Blog#194- 3/17/24

By Richard Davis

I was recently reminded of how much most Americans are missing from their lives because of the loss of connection to our cultural roots. My wife and I attended a presentation of the history of Mocko Jumbies on St Croix in the Virgin Islands and we realized some of the cultural richness that we are missing.

Many of the Caribbean islands are steeped in cultural traditions that was brought from Africa and continue to be a part of their lives. Mocko Jumbies are stilt walkers who dress up in colorful traditional African costumes and dance and sway to the infectious beat of African and Caribbean rhythms.

A Wikipedia entry about Mocko Jumbies is instructive. “While the god Moko is from the Kongo (or Congo) and Nigeria, from the Maasai people, Trinidad and Tobago has added their own touch to him. Moko, in the traditional sense, is a god. He watches over his village, and due to his towering height, is able to foresee danger and evil. His name, Moko, literally means the “diviner”, and he is represented by men on towering stilts and performs acts unexplainable to the human eye. In one remote tribe, the Moko rises from a regular man’s height to the skies fluidly with no help and descends similarly to leave others to wonder how he performed such an act.”

As with many cultural traditions the Mocko Jumbies became all but extinct in the 1990’s until a few people started a revival. They never really disappeared from the scene in St. Croix and there are few people there who have promoted the tradition that continues to weave its way through local culture.

Although many Americans come from a variety of cultures, most of us have assimilated so much that we do not have traditions to enrich our lives. Some people may think that cultural traditions are just a frivolous addition to life but without them people lose an anchor to their humanity. One could even make a case that one of the reason that there are so many lost souls in our mostly cultureless society is because they have no traditions.

Of course, some might say that religion is what is needed to fulfill people’s lives and that is true for many people. Religions offer tradition, ritual and all of the things that define culture, yet current day religions in many communities do not seem to be providing the sustenance that people need.

Religion requires a commitment that many people are not willing to make in today’s society. One has to make a sustained effort on a continuing basis and that seems to be too difficult for life in our short attention span world.

Cultural traditions such as the Mocko Jumbies are brought to us and they surround us and all we have to do is show up occasionally at public events. There is a parallel cultural tradition that originated among Eastern European Jews in the middle ages with Klezmer music. Musicians developed a rich repertoire of songs for all occasions and they traveled from village to village to provide music for weddings, funerals and special occasions.

As Jews migrated away from Europe they too became victims of assimilation. In the U.S. there were some accomplished Klezmer musicians who brought their tradition with them and the music became a part of American culture in the early part of the 20th century. By the late 60’s Klezmer had all but died out until a bunch of young Jewish American musicians revived the tradition and, thanks to them, Klezmer is alive and well in the U.S.

When I was younger I did not appreciate the importance of tradition. It took me most of my life to cultivate that appreciation and I now study and play Klezmer music. Young people are starting to carry on the tradition as they are doing with Mocko Jumbies in St. Croix and throughout the Caribbean.

Cultural tradition may not be a cure-all for the ills of civilization but it just may be that compass that we are all looking for.

Comments | 2

  • Vanishing Points

    Appreciation for cultural tradition is greatly enhanced by an understanding of the conditions and forces people faced while trying to preserve their artifacts and practices. In our flash-in-the-pan pop-infused homogenized corporate monoculture it’s easy to miss the big picture. How many people nowadays know about King Leopold II, one of the most brutal despots of all time? And are we not also seeing the history of European Jews being rewritten by contemporary propagandists.

    Dances, music, food, crafts, and myths are the fruits of a culture. The flower is everyday life, in any of the myriad locales spread over the planet. When the daily existence of people is threatened, the loss is immeasurable.

  • Little Survived in Our Line

    My great-grands from Sweden were forbidden to speak Swedish by their children, who were ashamed when they didn’t speak English. Away went any cultural traditions as well, leaving just some recipes and Angel Chimes.

    My mother’s adoptive parents, Pop and Nan, were English and had moved here after WW1. Pop lived with us after Nan died. We were raised with a lot of Anglo influence and went to an Episcopalian church. Conversation was impersonal. Food was boiled or fried and bland. Clothing was practical.

    We lived in Brooklyn, NY, and that was our saving grace. If you’re from Brooklyn, you are partially every nationality that’s there when you’re there. You eat every ethnic food, see every cultural celebration, know the holidays. You may not have your own native tribe’s traditions, but you have a piece of everyone else’s traditions. That’s the melting pot.

    I do wish we’d gotten more of our own ethnic bits handed down. We have some stories of the Scottish line, but nothing else to speak of except a predilection for oatmeal. We know nothing of the Mayflower people, or the Dutch, or even the more recent French-Canadians, just names.

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