Shelly-Ann Thompson, Freelance Reporter
Drumming plays an important part in the Port Morant All-Female Kumina Group's performance.
THE WOMEN are garbed in bandana dresses. The predominantly red-plaid ankle-length skirts and matching blouses with head wraps illuminate their bodies.
The instruments are then taken out - a hassock; drums made of goat skin; graters; a knife; shakers; and candles. One of the members lights a candle, another woman rattles the shakers and Bernice Henry begins to sing Morning Oh! The women join in and the drums roar.
THINGS THAT YOU NEVER IMAGINE
This is a sneak peak into a performance by the Port Morant All-Female Kumina Group. "Come one night when we have a dance and see how it is really done. You will see people do things that you never imagine that people can do. Or one night when we give sacrifice to the earth that's when we kill an animal," says Miss Henry.
The Port Morant All-Female Kumina Group is based in Port Morant, St. Thomas. An affiliate of the decades-old Port Morant Kumina Group that also has a mixed group (of male and female) and children's groups. The 16-member all-female group's ages range from 13 to 65. Since the female group's inception three years ago they have performed at numerous events and venues. They have captured audiences at the International Women's Day Rally held last month at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre in Kingston; the Seville Great House; on Mother's Day they host a family celebration in their hometown; and overseas in Germany and England.
Miss Henry, the group's leader and founder, says that it was important to have a female Kumina group. Noting that women are the mothers of the earth.
"We teach the females to play drum, practise to do everything that the man can do. We teach them to stand up like a hero from the day they were born. That means if the man cannot go, the woman put on the pants and go." The women can themselves perform a religious dance ceremony held on the occasion of a birth, betrothal, nine-night, memorial and other services, said Miss Henry.
Valerie Wilson, 52, has been with the Kumina group for 25 years and notes that she has tremendous healing powers. "The most wonderful thing I have received is the healing power. Some of the things I do I don't even know about is days after people tell me about what I have done."
Several of the group's members have an admired dexterity of African dances such as Kumina, Dinky Mini and quadrille.
The African languages is also learnt by being involved in Kumina. Despite the small range of words she knows in African languages Miss Wilson feels revered to sing in African.
"It is our culture so we should learn our culture because it belongs to our fore parents and it reminds us of them. By being in Kumina we learn about them because not even in school they don't teach much about the African culture but that of the White man's."
With a variety of African culture to be inherited the youth of the community are encouraged to be members. "It is also necessary to get them (the youth) involved so that the traditions can be passed down," said Miss Henry.
Enjoys the Drum
One such youth is 16-year-old Kadian Brown. Miss Brown has been with the Kumina group since January. "It has been nice so far. I get a lot of enjoyment from the drum beating, it sounds so good," she says.
However, more importantly the members of the group are appreciative of each other knowing that there are women they can turn to for advice and assistance.
Member, Angela Lee credits the group for achieving some of her goals. "I used to live in Kingston with my boyfriend and stay sometimes with my mother in St. Thomas. After meeting the members and joining the group they taught me not to squander my money but how to save. Now I'm about to own my own house in St. Thomas. Miss Lee also acknowledges that the group taught her togetherness and co-operation. "Now I know how to live well with my family. If there is illness I know how to help someone. It lets you know your own culture where you going and where you coming from."
Miss Wilson told Flair that among women togetherness is fulfilment and when combined with Kumina brings joy. "My fulfilment from Kumina is that if anything is wrong my ancestors will dream me and tell me and if something is wrong then they will tell me so I can tell them. Ancestors reveal the things to me and I feel like I"m protected and guarded," she says.
Many of the members profess that they would not discontinue learning about Kumina as it's a gift. "I love it to the bone. I encourage others to join a group such as ours because it's an African thing and we are of African decent so I had to and others should," said Frederica Bates, who joined the group four years ago.
The leader Bernice Henry, affectionately known in the community as "grandma" is also the backbone of the group that depends on her for guidance.
"Miss Bernice is a mother to us all. She knows everything about us. Even sometimes when we have boyfriend problems she knows. Even in the community she is a mother to us," said Bates who also doubles as the group's dressmaker.
Kumina was passed down to Miss Henry by her maternal parents, grandmother and mother. "My grandmother from Africa used to do it in Jamaica it has been coming from those days from my mother to me," says Miss Henry.
Many slaves of Congo, ancestry of Kumina, on the island had runaway and settled in areas of St. Thomas. Miss Henry said some of these slaves were her relatives.
Through Kumina Miss Henry knows many languages some of which she does not know the origin or name of. Due to her knowledge of African languages Miss Henry is often asked by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission to assist with translation. "Some of them I can't put it down (on paper) but I pass it to my children," she says.
The language of the ritual has however been shown to be largely Ki-Kongo. The name Kumina also seems to be of Bantu origin.
The Kumina and African languages that Miss Henry was taught by her parents while growing up in the hills of Port Morant she passes to whomever she knows. "There is nothing in the world I love so much it's my culture. My parents say not to leave it, and I won't 'til judgement," she said.
However there are many who are cynics of Kumina some persons even refer to it as a cult. "Don't be scared, it's nothing harmful, it's the right culture for us," Miss Henry said. "There are many persons who use to criticise us now they come and join us. We marry and uplift with the drum," she continued Miss Henry. She notes that often she is called on by parents to heal their children. "Many parents at nights run here to say their children sick - fits, bad feeling, upset stomach, infections."
Members of the group live throughout the parish in communities such as Bowden, Leith Hall, Land Top, Yallahs, and of course Port Morant.
The Kumina veteran encourages women to be a part of cultural organisations such as Kumina. "The same thing that men can do women can. We are the mother of the man, we are the queen, the mother of the king.