“Trinidad and Tobago,” I patiently repeated for the second time.
“What?” She frustratingly retorted.
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 indeed. 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 tradition that embedded inside of those communities remained in a state closer to its original state. “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 kalinda alive.”
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 Revolution. “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 certainly 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 Benjamin. 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 kalinda 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,” says Taylor. I laugh nervously again. Springer laughs loudly. She began training in 2012, immersing herself in the kind of culture she writes about. “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 warriorhood, 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,” says Benjamin.
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, suddenly. “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 jarring. The impact, though not hard, is unsettling. 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 somebody 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 pressures 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.
“This is life-and-death stresses. Someone coming at you with a stick to knock your head off. If under those circumstances you can retain yourself, remain connected to yourself…”
He doesn’t finish the sentence but it would probably have been along the lines of Rudyard Kipling’s, “if you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, then you will be a man, my son.” Or in Springer’s case, a woman.