Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : February 19th 2014 Contents JOSHUA SURTEES
When Keegan Taylor starts swinging
the stick I m pretty scared. It s not
that he s going to actually hit me.
But he might. Taylor and Rondel Benjamin
take their stickfighting very seriously
Benjamin is trained in 26 different
martial arts and has been teaching for
25 years. Taylor recently returned from
the Film Festival of Guadeloupe where
he promoted No Bois Man No Fraid,
the docu-drama they made about
"stick." Last year they gave a TEDx
lecture in Port-of-Spain.
"It was as foreign to us as certain
things here would be to you," says
Keegan. "But we immersed ourselves
in the process of trying to understand
what stickfighting is and ended up
meeting some of the great masters from
the south eastern side of Trinidad.
Moruga, St Mary s, Sixth Company."
The south is the heartland of T&T stick,
in the villages where the Merikins settled,
freed Africans and African-Americans
released from the British army and given
land in south Trinidad.
"Because they were so isolated from the
rest of Trinidad," says Benjamin, "any tra-
dition that embedded inside of those com-
munities remained in a state closer to its
"A lot of the places where you still find
kalinda today---Caparo, Talparo, Toco, Sangre
Grande, Gran Couva, Moruga---were places
where the West Indian regiments settled.
Being warriors and soldiers they kept the
The word kalinda comes from the Bantu
language of Central Africa. Stick came across
the Atlantic with the slaves, first arriving in
Dominica and Haiti before travelling down
the islands during the time of the Haitian
"The first word I ever said was 'fighting'"
I ask Benjamin why he s obsessed with
self-defence. "The first word I ever said was
fighting, " he says, "I was a warlike child."
I am the opposite. Not a pacifist but cer-
tainly peace-loving, I ve never had a fight
in my adult life. The writer Attillah Springer,
who is accompanying me for the lesson, says
she was the same at first but allowed her
latent aggression to flow.
I m glad it s Taylor teaching me about bois
and not Benjamin, who sits nearby on the
ground drumming a rhythm which they tell
me to move to.
Not that Taylor is a soft touch---he s just
slightly less physically intimidating than
But hold on, why has he given me a shorter
stick than his? Is that fair?
"You learn with the short stick before
moving up to the full-length one," he says.
I laugh nervously. Then we get going.
We shuffle our feet in time singing a song
(or "lavway") with the refrain, "Joe Talmana."
Talmana originated the local form of kalin-
da and, during the 1881 Canboulay Riots,
dismounted Captain Baker from his horse
with a stick.
I feel a bit daft chanting and shuffling
with a stick in my hand and I feel unco-
ordinated. I ve never really got in touch with
my African roots.
I have been to West Africa twice but having
grown up in London, my exposure to the
culture has been rather limited. In England,
fighting just means boxing, scrapping.
"If the vocabulary of movement is dance,"
Benjamin reassures me, "then it s a matter
of applying dance to any movement form in
order to put together your sentences and
essays. In the Congo that is their belief for
everything, even making babies..."
A game or a fight?
"The first thing we re going to do is, you re
going to learn how to break the stick with
your head. And if you don t bleed you pass,"
I laugh nervously again. Springer laughs
loudly. She began training in 2012, immersing
herself in the kind of culture she writes
"I felt it was important for me to have a
physical communication as opposed to just
sitting watching it," she says.
"When you take part you have a sense of
the speed of the game. As an observer of
stick sometimes you don t even see what s
happening. If you blink you miss a major
part of what s going on."
It s been empowering for her, physically,
as a woman, too.
"Women are socialised to overthink. And
particularly now in Trinidad women s bodies
are such spaces of conflict.
"I now feel a different sense of power. I
was doing this yoga challenge and had to
leave my house at 5 am. I don t have a car,
I travel. And I m walking down the road
looking around thinking, anybody who do
me anything, I m gonna beat them to death
with my yoga mat, you know."
But isn t it a game, I ask? They have all
used the word "game."
"What we found in the central Bantu
region is that in preparation for warrior-
hood, young men went through certain
rituals of combat games and combat
dances. And that character, the circle, the
drumming structure, the call-and-
response style of music all seem to match
styles of combat games still played there,"
So it s a game...but it s also a fight.
Great. Is it too late to tell them I m a lover,
not a fighter?
"I m going to hit you," Taylor says, sud-
"Wait...what?" It s definitely too late.
"And you re going to defend yourself."
"Okay....." I say, unconvinced of my ability
to do so.
Taylor swings one-handed, I block two-
handed. The knock of wood on wood is jar-
ring. The impact, though not hard, is unset-
tling. But the most difficult thing is
anticipating the swings, which come thick
and fast. There s no time for sticking, so to
speak. As soon as I let my guard slip, Taylor
shows me how he could have cracked my
rib.Something Springer says strikes me as a
good tip for potential daydreamers, "As a
writer I spend so much time writing things
inside my head. But the speed of it means
you can t second-guess, you have to be very
present in the moment."
One time she was writing something in
her head whilst stickfighting and got lashed
on her finger.
Well, if that s the worst injury she s had,
how bad can this be, right?
Next it s my turn to swing the stick, which
requires a deft wrist action. I ve swung a lot
of things in my time---cricket bats, tennis
racquets---but this feels alien.
Unlike when children mimic hitting some-
body with a stick in wild flurries, this requires
control and technique. I feel useless at it.
Later I tell them that after years of not
playing sports, I feel I ve lost control of my
body. In life in general we don t use the
reflexes required in self-defence. We don t
expect to be attacked!
But Benjamin says, "In life we face pres-
sures and there s constant conflict and co-
operation all occurring at the same time."
"There s very few spaces where you re
allowed to practise remaining focused and
integrated while stresses are thrown at you.
"Kalinda is the worst possible scenario.
Visiting New Orleans for
Mardi Gras season? You ll
find pizza, hot dog stands
and rolling carts of cotton
candy galore along the pa-
rade routes, but some of the
city s finest fare can also be
consumed along St Charles
Avenue, the main drag for
the biggest and glitziest star-
studded processions of Car-
Some restaurants even
have grandstands that put
viewers at eye level with
floats and just above the
throngs of street revellers
jockeying for beads with
Herbsaint, a French
bistro-style restaurant on St
Charles near the middle of
the parade route, offers
viewing spots for diners from
its grandstands for $35 to
$50, depending on the night,
but also has dining-room
windows fronting the route.
Like several restaurants,
Herbsaint is closed on Mardi
Gras (March 4 this year), but
most downtown parades
happen in the days and
weeks before the holiday.
Zulu, Rex and two other
clubs, known as krewes, pa-
rade on Carnival day. More
than 30 others are scheduled
from Friday through Lundi
Gras, the Monday before
Mardi Gras, including the
Endymion, Muses and Or-
pheus parades. (AP)
Fine dining while watching Mardi Gras parades
Continues on Page A34
Stickfighting instructor and martial arts expert, Rondel
Benjamin, at last year's Canboulay Riots Re-enactment.
PHOTO: CLYDEEN MCDONALD
• Twitter: @GuardianTT • Web: guardian.co.tt
Links Archive February 18th 2014 February 21st 2014 Navigation Previous Page Next Page