The African influence can be seen in several of the folk dances of Trinidad and Tobago. Dances such as the Bongo, Kalinda, Shango and Limbo owe their roots to Africa.
The Bongo is performed at the house of the deceased on the night of the wake (the night before the funeral). The dance depicts the passing of a person from one world to the next. No costume is worn. Enclosed by a circle of people, the dancers move in the center while five or six qua-qua players are stationed at one side. The qua-qua is the musical accompaniment for the dance and is simply two pieces of bamboo struck or clapped together rhythmically by the players. The flat sound is struck in the tempo tack-tata-tack-tack, tack-tata-tack-tack.
Usually one dancer performs at a time, but several might compete by dancing together. The basic movement consists of dropping one foot behind the other which is kicked quickly, slightly forward, twice. The arms are outstretched or held slightly forward and upward. Both shake naturally as the hops and kicks are made. There are several variations on this dance.
The Kalinda is an African performance of dance, singing and stick fighting. Of these, stick fighting is the most prominent and can be seen in Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival celebrations. Stick fighting is also called “Creole wood”, “Bois”, and “Bataille Bois”, and is performed by men only.
Normally, the stick fighting takes place in the open in a “gayelle (gayal)” or circle formed by the onlookers. The drummers squat on one side with their small keg drums: one “cutter” and two or three “foolay” men. Both hands are used in beating the drums. A small group of men consisting of a chantouelle and chorus sing the stick fight or Kalinda songs or “lam-wehs” to the rhythm of the drum. It is the chantouelle’s duty to egg on the fighters. The songs are in English and French Patois and boast of the prowess of the batonniere or stick fighter.
A “batonniere” may fight in his everyday clothes or in a special costume made of coloured satin decorated with beads, swansdown and tiny mirrors. On the chest and back are heart-shaped decorations. A head-tie is worn closely and tightly over the head with two long ends hanging on either side. Stockings and alpargatas complete the wear.
The stick, about one inch in diameter and four feet long, is a piece of cured poui or “a-ou-ray”. Some fighters “mount” their sticks. That is, they have prayers said over the stick in order to make the user invincible.
When the drumming starts, one batonniere would throw his stick inside the ring and the rival would accept the challenge by jumping in and waiving his stick. Both would dance a Kalinda jig and then move around making mock play motions with the stick. The fighters are egged on by jeers or praises. During the stick fight a blow might be made at any time. Blows are always made above the waist.
The Kalinda Dance step is a sort of jig. With body bent forward and arms, with or without stick, slightly upraised, the dancer performs rapid foot movements from side to side. Sometimes the dancer-fighter moves backward hopping on one foot while placing the other behind. All foot movements go in time with the drum beats. At the same time hands and sticks are moved about in a variety of positions.
The Shango is a religious dance of African origin and is performed in honour of the Yoruba god Shango. It is usually performed daily and nightly for three or four weeks of the year. People from far and near come to the ceremony seeking either to be cured from some sickness or to have a spell cast upon a lover or an enemy. Payment is usually in the form of donations of rum or animals such as a goat or a white fowl-cock.
The dance is performed in a tent covered with galvanized iron sheets and blocked around with coconut leaves. The audience sits around three sides of the tent on bamboo benches. Three or four drummers sit on the ground on the fourth side, while a flower-covered altar with burning candles stands in one corner. The singers, accompanied by the drummers, start off with a song of African derivation. The set of drums includes a “cutter” and one or two “foolays”, all made out of hollowed out gru gru wood and covered with dried goat skin. Each drum is beaten with the palm of one hand and a stick held in the other, or beaten with both hands.
One dancer starts off and is followed by others. The music and dance movements become increasingly frenzied until a dancer drops and writhes on the ground. At this stage the dancer is said to be possessed by the spirit. If a sacrifice is to be made, it is made at this stage.
The basic step of the Shango dance is in the rhythm. With body loose and hands raised or held behind the back, one leg with knee slightly raised, is moved forward. The foot lands flat for all movements except for the final step when the appropriate foot is pulled slightly backward. The first two steps are longish and the last three, very short. The body is allowed to move at will. The basic step is repeated all over the floor until the last stages when the legs, hands and body are flung rhythmically in all directions.
Limbo has its origins in West Africa where it was danced to train young initiates of the tribe in physical fitness. It was brought to Trinidad by slaves who practiced it at wakes during the Bong session.
Limbo is a competitive dance. Two men hold a stick horizontally while a third shuffles under it, moving forward towards the stick with the body thrown backwards. Participants compete with each other to see who could pass under the stick without touching it. Initially the bar is positioned at waist height but is lowered progressively after every set of competitors gets a turn at going under it. As the stick is lowered it becomes more difficult to get under. The victor is the person who moves under the stick at its lowest point without touching it. This is a test of strength and competitors must have supple waist lines and strong backs. Good dancers can pass under a bar as low as seven inches from the ground.
Traditionally, Limbo was found in fishing villages such as Carenage, Blanchisseuse, Mayaro, Toco and Cumana, but it became popular in the night clubs of Port of Spain during the mid-1940s, spread to other Caribbean islands and then to North America and Europe. In 1948 Limbo was taken out of the countryside and into the ballroom by Charles Espinet, Sub-editor of the Trinidad Guardian. The Youth Council of Trinidad and Tobago presented the “Little Carib Company of Dancers in Limbo” at the Overseas Forces Club in April 1948. That was the first time Limbo was presented theatrically, and since then other dance groups have included Limbo on their programmes, both at home and abroad.