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‘Kumina icon’ to be laid to rest today

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams
Contributed Kumina drummers perform at Bernice Henry's grave-building event in Port Morant, St Thomas last Wednesday.
Peta-Gaye Clachar/Staff Photographer File Former Prime Minister and Fellow of the Institute of Jamaica, Edward Seaga, presents a Musgrave gold medal and citaion to Bernice Henry for her contribution to Kumina at the Institute of Jamaica Musgrave Medals Awards Ceremony ain May 2009.
Sister Bernice
File Keeping the tradition, young Devon McDonald (left), dances kumina with Jahveen Forrester, as Emone Anglin (right) and Romando Collins beat drums

In May 2009, Bernice 'Sister Bernice' Henry of Port Morant, St Thomas, accepted on behalf of the Kumina movement a special Musgrave Gold Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for the movement's contribution to cultural development.

Sister Bernice's selection to accept the award on behalf of the community demonstrated her prominence in the movement. She was regarded as St Thomas' Kumina queen, spiritual healer, and a local cultural icon.

Born on Industry Hill in Port Morant, St Thomas, on January 15, 1950, the queen was once a Kumina princess, groomed by her mother and maternal grandmother.

"My grandmother from Africa used to do it in Jamaica. It has been coming from those days from my mother to me," Sister Bernice told The Gleaner reporter Shelly-Ann Thompson in a story published in April 2006.

The "it", Sister Bernice referred to is Kumina, also known as Kalunga or Kaduunga. It is widely believed that Kumina was brought to Jamaica by the Congolese, who came to work in the country after Emancipation as indentured labourers. It's mainly a dance, with movements that are peculiar to it, accompanied by singing and instrumental music.

It consists of flat-footed inching of the feet, known as Congo step. There is a subtle, or powerful, forward thrusting of the hip and arms moving against the hip. There are accelerated spinning and sudden stops, among other nuances. An important feature is possession in which the 'possessed' is not aware of his actions.

main types of Kumina

There are two main types of Kumina. 'Bailo' is more of a public performance and consists of elements that are secular, while 'Country' has a strong African cultural features and is more ritualistic. This is when possession is more likely to take place.

Kumina rituals are carried out at wakes, christenings, burials, weddings, childbirth, and are also used in herbal and spiritual healing processes.

And in all of this, the drum is vital, accompanied by the 'shak-shak', the 'grater', and the 'catta' sticks. There are two types of drums. The kdandu provides the basic rhythms and supports the 'playing cyas', the lead drum. And while there is a lead drum, there is also a leader of any Kumina process. The male Kumina leader is called a 'captain' or 'king', while the female is 'mother' or 'queen'.

Queen Bernice Henry was known for her knowledge of African cultural traditions and languages that her forbears spoke. She learned them from her African grandmother but was not able to write some of them. She was consulted regularly by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission to do translations.

Over the years, she passed on her knowledge to her children and many others. Henry Cargill, her cousin, said she was an icon of the African Kumina culture. Taforah Henry, her last child, said her mother was "highly educated in her black history". From her mother, she said, she learned much about bushes and their medicinal properties. Another daughter, Ivy Henry, said her mother was an African cultural woman who believed in her culture and keeping it alive.

Academic and cultural organisations have also benefited from Sister Bernice's knowledge and expertise, and she performed at many places of note locally and overseas. Upon hearing of her passing, The African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB), a division of the Institute of Jamaica, said it "notes with regret the passing of Bernice Henry, leader of the Port Morant National and International Mumbakka Group of Kumina Practitioners".


"Her leadership in Kumina has been recognised by institutions such as the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission and the Institute of Jamaica," said the ACIJ/JMB.

"In July 2014, Sister Bernice and the Port Morant National and International Mumbakka Group performed a welcoming ritual at the ACIJ/JMB for the repatriation to Jamaica of the playing cyas, the female Kumina drum, which, once belonged to the late Imogene 'Queenie' Kennedy, a well-known Kumina leader.

The ACIJ/JMB also noted that, "she was passionate about Kumina and was desirous of extending the knowledge of the religious practice. She was also interested in empowering women.

As such, Sister Bernice formed the Port Morant All- Female Kumina Group, an affiliate of the Port Morant National and International Mumbakka."

In The Gleaner article mentioned earlier, Sister Bernice Henry spoke of her undying love for Kumina. "There is nothing in the world I love so much. It is my culture. My parents say not to leave it, and I won't till judgement".

If death was what Sister Bernice meant by judgement, then judgement has come for her, and she didn't give up Kumina. She was active in the movement up to the point when she became seriously ill.

She didn't recover and passed away on Monday, November 24. Her funeral is today at Colonel Cove, near Morant Bay. Interment is at her yard in Port Morant.