At Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival, a few cultural warriors are keeping alive the centuries-old stick-fighting martial art kalinda
Author Ilan Greenberg Photography Maria Nunes
Every year, the National Carnival Commission of Trinidad & Tobago stages the National Stick Fighting Competition in San Fernando, on Trinidad, where competitors from around the island nation come not only to test their skill at the Caribbean martial art kalinda, but to preserve and celebrate what is perhaps the most distinctly Trinidadian tradition.
“Kalinda is an entire culture,” says Rondell Benjamin, a leader in the sport’s revival, on the eve of the competition. “There is a fashion to it, a martial arts philosophy to it, and we’re in danger of losing it.”
Benjamin and his friend Keegan Taylor have been key players in the effort to promote kalinda since 2010, when they started the Bois Academy of Trinidad & Tobago (bois is French patois for “stick”). Their mission is twofold: To instill national pride in their fellow Trinidadians, and to give young men something positive to focus on in a country that offers little in the way of upward mobility. Says Benjamin, “Kalinda creates a space where young people can transcend their circumstances and just become beautiful.”
This winter, Hemispheres traveled to San Fernando and Port of Spain to photograph the culture of kalinda and learn about its relationship to Carnival.
The origins of kalinda date back to when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean: A number of the men from Angola and the Congo came from a stick-fighting warrior tradition. Once on the plantations, their African martial art evolved into a Caribbean performance art, with folk music (a precursor to calypso) and dance mixed into often bloody matches staged for the entertainment of fellow slaves. When the British captured Trinidad (a former French settlement) at the end of the 18th century, the kalinda fighters were marginalized. The new authority saw the stick men as a threat and summarily banned kalinda fighting. When slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1834, the newly freed people sought to assimilate, and so pushed kalinda culture further underground.
“Kalinda is still stigmatized, for much the same reasons,” says Taylor. “We suffer from cultural amnesia. It’s only by reconnecting to the narrative that formed what this country is today that we can move forward.”
To this day, two sharp kinds of kalinda stick remain outlawed. Fighters have personal preferences, but according to the rules of the sport, all sticks must be approximately one inch in diameter and four feet long. While some fighters carve their own sticks, others commission them from competitors known for their carving skills. King David (opening page), a renowned kalinda fighter, is sought out for his highly polished, finely weight-balanced sticks. “When the spirit of the stick gets into you, you can’t resist,” he says.
The kalinda match begins with the rolling of drums and the chants of male singers. Fighters assume defensive crouches, facing each other in the center of the gayelle (ring) with sticks held over their heads. They strike like samurai and defend by holding the sticks firmly with both hands. In the past, the rules of engagement were simple: The victor was the man left standing. Today, while injuries do occur, fighters are guided by a code of fair play and a mutual respect. They can strike only above the waist and are rewarded for intricate maneuvering and finesse as well as for the harmful whacks. The bigger matches, such as those at Carnival, are decided by a multi-judge panel.
The music plays an important role. Fighters quicken their jabs and strikes as the drums gain tempo, and they move into slower, more defensive postures as the rythm ebbs. Chants are in French patois: Mama hele pou mwen is a common refrain, meaning, “My mother is crying for me.”
Carnival has become the most important venue for reviving kalinda as an integral part of Trinidadian culture. During the past decade, kalinda fights have become a key part of the schedule of the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival, a riotous street festival that occurs on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
The effort to integrate kalinda into Carnival—by far the country’s largest tourist attraction—was championed by Jennifer Cassar. Also known as the Carib Queen, she is the official leader of Trinidad’s First Peoples (which number approximately 7,000) and has been a fan of kalinda since childhood.
“It’s the dancing, the unique footsteps, and understanding that the people in the stands are attracted to the spirituality of the rituals,” she says. “I wanted to put my experience in marketing to work for greater kalinda exposure, and to help the fighters. The bottom line is that people love watching, but there needs to be more money to fuel the art. For me, kalinda is nothing less than an international art form.”