myal

Kumina is described as one of the most African religious expressions in Jamaica. Standing the test of time, Kumina has managed to survive the influences of Western culture. The language and the dances of Kumina are so undiluted that they can be traced back to tribes in the Congo in Africa.

The influences that shaped Kumina landed in the 1850s with the arrival of African indentured immigrants from the Congo region of Central Africa during the immediate post-emancipation period. Kumina took root in St. Thomas where a large number of the immigrants settled. However, the religious spread to the parishes of Portland, St. Mary, St. Catherine and Kingston.

Kumina rituals are usually associated with wakes, burials or memorial services, but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences. Kumina dances are used when help is needed to win a court case or for winning a lover.

The dances associated with Kumina are also viewed as an intrinsically Jamaican art form and are performed for entertainment value by several Kumina groups and even the distinguished National Dance Theatre Company.

However, Kumina is sometimes viewed with suspicion as a form of witchcraft or “bad obeah” because of the trance-like state some of the participants fall into during the ceremonies. Those that are more informed about the religious expression have rubbished these superstitions but have warned against misuse of Kumina rituals.

In this excerpt from an article in The Gleaner, a reporter speaks to the leader of a Kumina group in St. Thomas:

“When asked if the members practised obeah, Ephraim Bartley, the group’s leader gave an emphatic “No”. Obeah, he says is always for bad, while Kumina, despite being sometimes used for bad, is always meant for good.

According to the leader, persons have been healed and there are even some who have been raised from the dead.”

THE KINGS AND QUEENS OF KUMINA:

Both men and women are able to assume leadership of a Kumina sect. The men are called ‘King’ or ‘Captain’, while the women are referred to as ‘Queen’ or ‘Mother/Madda’. The leaders must be able to control zombies or spirits and assume leadership after careful training in the feeding habits, ritual procedures, dances, rhythms, and songs of a variety of spirits, from their predecessor.

Renowned ‘Kumina Queen’ Bernyce Henry balances a lit candle on a tin as she leads the Port Morant National and International Kumina Dancers at 'Falla Backa Mi’ in 2005.

PERFORMANCE AND POSSESSION IN KUMINA:

One of the distinct features of Kumina is the prominence of dance and ritual as a form of religious and cultural expression.

Dance and rituals are used to invoke communication with the ancestral spirits. The rituals involve singing, dancing, music and sacrificial offerings. All of these are used to create an atmosphere favorable for spiritual possession, known as ‘Mayal’.

One is said to “catch ‘Myal’” when possessed by one of the three classes of gods- sky, earthbound, and ancestral zombies- the last being the most common form of possession.  Each god can be recognized by the particular dance style exhibited by the possessed, and by songs and drum rhythms to which it responds.

SOUNDS OF KUMINA:

The captivating sounds of Kumina emanates from several rudiment instruments, some that were transplanted from the Congo and others that were repurposed for these ceremonies. Here is a list of the instruments and songs used in Kumina ceremonies:

Kbandu (battery of drums) - Larger and lower pitched drums, on which the rhythm is played with emphasis on the first and third beats.

Playing Cast or lead drums - The most complicated and specific ‘spirit’ basic rhythms are played on this set of drums. The drummers on the Playing Cast are respected as they must be knowledgeable and competent in playing the variety of rhythms which invoke, repel, and control the many spirits or deities.

Scrapers - An ordinary grater that is used as an instrument.

Shakas - A gourd or tin can rattles.

Catta Sticks - Used by the 'rackling men’ to keep up a steady rhythm on the body of the drum behind the drummer.

Songs - Singing is a critical part of Kumina ceremonies and is divided into two types, Bailo and Country. 

Bailo are songs in Jamaican creole and are less sacred, these songs are used for performances and exhibitions. On the other hand, Country involves the use of the Ki-Kongo language and is used to communicate with the spirits during mayal. 

The Queen engages in call and response with the King/Captain, singing of both Bailo and Country songs.  Call and response means one line or verse is “raised” or sung then repeated by others in response. 

In Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s examination of Kumina in the Jamaica Journal, he says that persons who perform Kumina for entertainment purposes are warned against using particular drums. It is also recommended that certain words in the songs be changed. 

Regarding the Ki-Kongo language, in the mid 1950’s Edward Seaga in the course of completing a research project submitted 48 words from Kumina Country songs to The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Forty-one of those words were identified as Congolese.

Dances:

An article from the Jamaica Journal outlines what happens at a Bailo dance: 

“At Bailo dances, the spirits who are called make their presence known by ‘mounting’ or possessing a dancer; whose given dance style helps in identifying the spirit, but can span all possibilities of movement.  

The basic dance posture constitutes an almost erect back and propelling actions of the hips as the feet inch along the ground.  The dancers move in a circular pattern around the musicians and centre pole, either singly or with a partner.  

The arms, shoulders, rib cage, and hips are employed, offering the dancers ample opportunity for variations and interpretation of the counter-beats or poly-rhythms. Spins, dips, and ‘breaks’ on the last beat are common dance variations.”

KUMINA AS CULTURAL EXPRESSION:

Kumina has been brought popularized by several performance groups such as the Seaforth Dust to Dawn Kumina Group in St. Thomas and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC). However, Kumina was brought to the world stage by the efforts of the National Dance Theatre Company and the efforts of one of its founding members Rex Nettelford.

Nettleford, in 1971, exposed the entire company of dancers, singers and drummers to the ceremony in Seaforth. The NDTC’s interpretation of Kumina is the signature piece of the NDTC and arguably the most performed dance-work in the repertoire since it was commissioned by Carreras Limited in 1971.

In the photo above, members of the NDTC perform 'Kumina’.

Kumina is a ritualistic medium through which our African ancestors are celebrated and appeased. It’s an art form combining dancing, singing and drumming, and has distinctive movements and cadences that make it easily recognisable. The hypnotic sounds of Kumina drums is not easy to imitate, and very hard to duplicate.

Myalism

After reading Erna Brodber’s novel ‘Myal’, I wanted to take a brief look at this religion and how it evolved in Jamaica.

Originally an Akan based religion in West Africa, Myalism (the religious practice of healing the spirit) was maintained by those captured and transported to Jamaica as slaves. The religion took two paths in Jamaica, one was practiced in its purest form by the Windward Maroons, the other was influenced by the Christian beliefs of Baptist missionaries. The religion unified the enslaved and played an important role in rebellions during slavery and in the years following emancipation.

Healing in Myalism is achieved through a Myal dance. The central figure is the Myal-man (or Kumfu-man in Maroon communities), who becomes possessed by ancestral spirits to counteract the ill effects of Obeah. The spirits are summoned with dance, drumming and other instruments such as the Abeng. Baths, herbal medicines and the sacrifice of fowls also played a part in the ritual.

Following emancipation in 1838, Myalism increased in popularity, as did attendances to Baptist churches. In 1865, Paul Bogle, a Baptist Deacon and Myalist preacher led the Morant Bay rebellion based on his beliefs to challenge colonial rule.

Myalism formed the basis for the religions that replaced it: Revivalism and Pocomania.

Myal by Erna Brodber

‘Myal’ or Myalism is an African derived religion practiced in Jamaica, which takes elements from both African and Christian belief systems. Myalism is associated with healing.

Following on from reading 'Jane and Louisa will soon come home’, 'Myal’ links in nicely and has similar images, themes and specific Jamaican cultural references (many related to colonialism, religion, skin pigmentation, slavery and identity). For me, it was easier to link the narrative together than in 'Jane and Louisa will soon come home’. However after reading the reviews of 'Myal’, I realised I had missed a few key points in the story.

Set in Jamaica during the early 1900s, two stories emerge. The first is of Ella, an outcast in her community due to having a black mother and a white father. Her lighter skin tone brings animosity from others, stemming from a perception that she will have an advantage to learn and gain employment. “It didn’t make any sense beating out themselves on this child and having the embarrassment of seeing welts on her from the slightest touch of the strap, when she was going to get through anyhow. So they stopped seeing her and she too stopped seeing them.” p10-11.

The wife of a baptist preacher convinces Ella’s mother that Ella would be better placed to learn with her and in essence she gives up her blackness for 'better’ opportunities. Ella’s later marriage to an American man, further shapes her into a white wife, leaving her 'zombified’ and devoid of any black soul.

“a phenomenon common in parts of Africa and in places like Haiti and Brazil, they tell me. I’ve not been to those but I have experienced Africa. People are separated from the parts of themselves that make them think and they are left as flesh only. Flesh that takes direction from someone.“ p108

The second story is of Anita who like Ella, is taken in by the preacher’s wife. Anita however is plagued by Obeah at a young age. A 'spirit’ sexually and physically abuses her throughout her teenage years, a spirit who is in fact the white baptist deacon. The Myalists perform their ceremonies to rid Anita of this spirit thief.

Myal is Erna Brodber’s way of re-educating and pointing out the whitewashing of black history through religion and colonialism. Telling the stories outside of published history 'the half has never been told’.

“That need to preserve might have come from my knowledge of how people’s history gets distorted and stolen. I was brought up in a household that was very aware. One of the first times I ever saw my father angry, he was angry about colonialism.” Erna Brodber 2004 interview BOMB magazine.

Myal by Erna Brodber Review

Title: Myal

Author: Erna Brodber

Genre(s): Literature, African Culture, Colonialism 

Publisher: New Beacon

Publication Date: February 1 2007

Paperback: 112 pages

Back of the Book:

There is no summary on the back of this book. It is a difficult book to read so in my review I will attempt to explain the story without spoiling to much.

My Rating: 

My Thoughts: 

I finished this book for my Concepts of Culture class a month ago but haven’t reviewed it because it is a very difficult text to discuss and to read. I wanted to wait until after a few lectures on the book so that I could better understand the story and give a fair review on the book.

Myal centres on Ella O'Grady (Langley later in the story), a mixed girl (Jamaican mother and Irish father) living in Grove Town Jamaica. The story focuses on Ella’s upbringing, how she is ridiculed in her town for her mixed parentage but suddenly looked up to after she recites some of Kipling’s works during a recitation at school. After this recitation Reverend and Mrs. Brassington (a man with mixed parentage like Ella and a white woman) offer to bring Ella with them to the States for education. The story focuses on Ella’s life in Grove Town and in the States, how she changes and how colonialism changes her. There are also elements of voodooism, Myalism, and magic.

The story is confusing, especially when the elements of voodooism but moreso the emergence of telepathy between some of the characters in the text. It isn’t fully explained how this magic came to be, and after reading the first chapter reader’s can’t help but feel their mind swirl with confusion and question what kind of book they’re reading. The language is difficult, and their are so many characters it’s hard to keep track of who is who in the novel.

But I still enjoyed Myal and discussing it in class helped me understand the book as a whole. It was interesting to learn about a new culture, watch the effects of colonialism, and learn about a different kind of spirituality I am unused to.

It’s difficult to describe why I like this book any further, go check the books Goodreads page and you’ll find less help. I recommend the book for a different read but it would be best if you’re reading it from an academic point of view.