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Sharing in the Kumina experi ence

- Contributed

Drummers and percussionists join L'Antoinette Stines, right, around the "seal yard" to demonstrate Kumina music. Occasion was the recent opening of the Kumina exhibition at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica (ACIJ) in downtown Kingston Mall.

Georgia Hemmings, Staff Reporter

SHABBY, corrugated sheets of zinc line the perimeter of the library of the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica (ACIJ) in the Ocean Mall, downtown Kingston, recreating a tenement yard.

Words are scrawled repeatedly on both sides of the zinc fence, and a hinged, board gate allows entrance into the yard beyond.

A "thanksgiving" table greets the eye, set up in the middle of the room. It is spread with a white table cloth. And all kinds of ritual paraphernalia ­ coloured candles, dried coconuts, cream soda and other flavoured beverages, fruit cake, duck, breads, water, milk, rum and leaves of the croton plant.

There is also a "centre man" (a circular area with a centre pole, bottled soft drinks, and candles), while nearby a "seal" is depicted with its coded white numbering and lettering.

Kumina drums are also displayed ­ the "kbandu" and the "playing Kass" ­ with other musical instruments such as shakers, graters, and the "Katta sticks."

This is the dramatic setting cleverly created for the Kumina exhibition currently on at the Institute. The exhibition is designed to inform and educate and create a greater awareness of the Kumina cult.

The viewer is led through it all by "guides" ­ ACIJ research officers who have worked to collect the information in the field and from secondary sources, and are willing to relate what they know. Nicoleta Solomon, Keesha Simon and public relations officer Jasmine Everett, "travailed" with The Sunday Gleaner on our recent visit.

They talked about the complexity of Kumina, the most African of all religious cults to be found in Jamaica. It originated among post-emancipation African contract labourers sent to Jamaica in the late 19th century, but is thought to be derived from the Kongo in Central Africa.

In fact, as research officer, Jasmine Everett told The Sunday Gleaner, there are practitioners of Kumina in Jamaica who are able to speak, sing and pray in the original African language, persons who have never travelled an inch beyond the boundary of their districts.A map on display shows that, today, Kumina is practised mainly in St. Thomas, a small area in St. James and at Waterloo in St. Catherine, where "Queenie", Jamaica's most prominent Kumina Queen, lived.

Communicating with spirits

It is a religion based mainly on possession of and communication with ancestral spirits. The belief is that the ancestors, when suitably enticed, return to the corporeal world through possession of the living. They are fed and entertained and, in return, provide the living with solutions to their problems, offering advice, and vital knowledge from beyond the grave.

All this is done with the sanction and approval of King Zaambi or Nzaambi Mpungu, who is known as "God Almighty" and from whom all power emanates.

Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes, mourning, funerals and memorials, but can also be performed for a whole range of other experiences (births, weddings, healing, invocations for justice, or resolution of some conflict, for food or evil).

Ms. Everett, commenting on the similarity to "obeah", pointed out the essential difference to be the obeahman's reliance on his manipulation of the spirits and the "keys" (nkisi), while Kumina relies on possession and guidance by the spirit as to what "nkisi" to use, and when and how.

There are other points of convergence with other religion/grouping (such as Ratafarianism, Pukumina or Pocomania) a viewer might observe as he/she is guided through the exhibition.

Kumina sessions involve singing, dancing and drumming, and video footages are played to demonstrate aspects of these ceremonies.

Ms. Everett told The Sunday Gleaner that the sessions are in two phases types ­ "bailo" (a more public, theatrical stage in which songs are sung in Jamaican dialect) and "country" (the more African and serious form in which the original Kikongo language is used and possession usually occurs). The "bailo" is the kind of Kumina performed for Festival demonstration and entertainment, and the songs are relatively calmer and slower than the "country" songs.

Within a Kumina ceremony, the shift from "bailo" to "country" occurs after the magical hour of midnight, and, with intensifying frenzy, dancers "travail" in a circle to the sound of drumbeats and chanting.

At the climax, the singing stops and dancers seem to be possessed by spirits. In this state, they give messages, warnings and other important revelations.

Spirit possession

So vital and compelling is the dance music that listening to the tapes at the exhibition, a viewer can become caught up in its the rhythm. But this is dangerous, as Ms. Everett warned, for possession is a real and potent element of a Kumina session.

In fact, possession is the high point of the session. The music and the drums are the most crucial communicative and manipulative media between the "living" and the "dead".

The Kbandu drum ­ a large low-sounding goat-skinned drum ­ keeps a steady ostinato-like rhythm pattern and the Playing Kyas ­ the smaller and higher pitched instrument ­ plays quick rhythmic improvisations, and the drummer are usually positioned in the "seal yard" (east to west), barefooted to maintain contact with the "spirits"

The importance of drums at these sessions is evidenced by the respect and position afforded the drummer within the cult. He has to be carefully selected and trained, and must be knowledgeable and competent to play the variety of rhythms that will either invoke, repel or control the many spirits or zombies.

According to Ms. Everett, it is the drummer and the "leader" (King or Mother) who must exhibit strength to control the "zombies". If a dancer is possessed too early in the proceedings, the drummer must play counter rhythms to pursue the spirit to leave. And, if a spirit is too violent or endangers the health of the dancer or even refuses to leave the dancer, the drummer must know how to change the rhythm to appease or persuade the spirit to leave.

The importance of the use of white rum, striking matches, flashing lights, and lime in this process is explained, as too the importance of colour and their relation to the type of ritual being performed.

The viewer will learn about the meaning of ritual objects ­ herbs, water, blood, candles, coconut, rice, etc ­ and other ritual actions. Eating and drinking are important and visiting "spirits" are offered portions of food before the main meal is shared.

The positioning of the foot in drumming, the particular clothing and costumes worn, the hierarchy within a Kumina community are also explained by the "guides".

Poster-sized photographs of various Kumina yard scenes are hung along the zinc fence, and a section is devoted to "Queenie" (born Imogene Kennedy), who died in 1998, and who received a National Honour for her contribution to the development of African heritage in Jamaica. The "thanksgiving" table in the exhibition was set up and "blessed by "Queenie's" nephew, King Baucho, viewed as Jamaica's "Kumina King".

It was pointed out that membership in Kumina is dependent primarily on birth into the "Bongo" family, but non-Bongo Jamaicans may be admitted by marriage or some form of initiation.

Understanding Kumina

Today, the orthodox Kumina profile is slowly changing, one change being its association with other denominations and groups, like Christianity, Revivalism, the Maroons. This "creolizing" of Kumina is an interesting feature of contemporary Jamaican society.

But communities continue to stand, and especially in St. Thomas, participants engage in subsistence farming or other gainful means of employment. And Kumina remains a unifying force among them (the dead, living and unborn), providing them with the faith, dignity, protection, knowledge and "gift" necessary for living.

Not understanding the depth and complexities of this religious practice, many persons might be tempted to dismiss Kumina as foolishness. But knowledge can help to change perception, and this is why this small exhibition has been mounted by the ACIJ ­ to inform about Kumina, why it works, what it does for its adherents.

Although it might be only the "tip of the iceberg", the information that can be gleaned can prove particularly useful in educating CXC students, social study and history teachers, researchers and others about this cultural form.

In fact, ACIJ acting director, David Brown, stresses that its mission is to disseminate information on Jamaica's cultural heritage, and the Institute wants to offer more assistance to students on topics from their syllabus for religious education, and stands ready to provide assistance or information as requested.

The Kumina exhibition continues until July 5, and viewing hours are Mondays to Thursdays from 1 a.m,. to 4:30 p.m., and on Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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