“People who know me, they just know these pictures,” said international photographer Stefan Falke, when he stopped by the Express House last week to talk about his new book, MOKO JUMBIES: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad.
The book’s 218 pages and 230 pictures chronicle just under a decade in the life of the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture, the Cocorite-based cultural organism whose visionary founder, Glen “Dragon” de Souza, revived the West African tradition 18 years ago as a means of helping underprivileged children stay away from drugs and crime.
Falke, a self-confessed “obsessive photographer,” has a slight German accent and he mumbles when he speaks. But the splendid images captured by his camera clearly speak a universal language, transcending the afrocentricity of the Moko Jumbies’ lore to communicate more fundamental aspects of the human condition. Shot entirely in the Cocorite schoolyard and the Port of Spain mas, the book is replete with images of the children of the Keylemanjahro School–their bright eyes, colourful costumes and warm smiles, the playful gestures of their limber bodies, their youthful energy and even their physical exhaustion after the mas, all captured, somehow, in the pages’ panoramic pictures.
“If you look at them (the children), you don’t think they’re on stilts. They fight, they play, they do everything that other kids do in the yard, except they’re elevated by six feet,” said Falke, adding that the children’s physical dexterity and psychological well-being was, in his opinion, evidence of the “spirit” that flows from Dragon and resides in the yard.
Himself a towering six feet and six inches, the reticent Falke is just about the last person you would associate with spirits, or Jumbies of any kind. Looking at the thin, pale, introspective German, one sees a technician, perhaps, rather than an artist. But Falke abandoned a career in civil engineering years ago in order to pursue his lifelong dream of full-time photography. And for the last seven years, he and his several kilos of equipment have returned here at Carnival time to snap shots of our sky-scraping stilt-walkers.
“I really hope that the book works for the School in terms of getting them known,” Falke says, betraying a level of attachment to, relationship with and emotional investment in the School’s teachers, handlers and designers (like Brian Mc Farlane and Laura Barbata) that obviously extends beyond the purely professional. Not only does Falke continue to make financial contributions toward the School but his unfulfilled dream is to take Dragon to West Africa, where the moko jumbies’ African antecedents still wear masks and still represent ancestral spirits overlooking their tribal community. And Falke was happy to announce the upcoming project by German film-maker, Harold Rumpf, who is carded to start shooting a documentary at the Cocorite-based school on January 31.
Falke’s Moko Jumbie photos have already been featured in “Visa Pour L’Image”, the French photo festival and have appeared in South Korea, Turkey, England, and Germany, and have coloured the pages of various magazines, from Europe’s Geo to Caribbean Beat. But he and publishers Pointed Leaf Press will continue to promote the book at “all the big Carnivals in the world,” including Washington DC, Toronto, London (Notting Hill), New York (Brooklyn Labour Day), Miami and Berlin. And Falke himself is looking forward to a March 5 book signing at the Harlem Museum, and a trip to Parisian bookstore, “La Chambre Claire,” for a book launching on March 17.
Pushed along by invaluable creative inputs from English book designer Stafford Cliff, as well as a pellucid introduction by Trinbagonian novelist Earl Lovelace, the book had a genesis as international as its intended readership. It all started in 1986 when Falke, a German tourist, left his home in Green Point, Brooklyn, for a Caribbean vacation. During a Tobago stopover, Falke met Luise Kimme, another German artist, who promptly hired him as a photographer to cover her prolific sculpture at her museum in Tobago. It was Kimme who later introduced Falke to Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall, whose “Song of the Earth” mas in the following year featured moko jumbies. Falke still remembers the first time he saw our unique version of stilt-walkers straddling kaleidoscopic human landscapes in Minshall’s mas.
Even more vivid is Falke’s recollection of walking into the Cocorite school yard for the first time “in the middle of the night” eight years ago. Falke says he immediately knew that he had found his “visual home.” It was love at first sight.
“It was a total cultural shock, a positive shock. It was wonderful,” he recalled. That was when the idea to do a long-term project first came.
Indeed, Falke is so clearly “at home” here that he succeeds, with this book, in opening up aspects of Trinidadian culture not just to the foreign readership, but to the local audience as well. No Trini, having browsed these pages, can but look up to the human beings, the African spirits and the ancient characters that are Moko Jumbies.