Words by Tishanna Williams—
Kalinda is a dance-like marital art brought to Caribbean slave plantations from the Congo and Angola, fought with a specially-crafted and spiritually-prepared stick or ‘bois’ (bwah) of about 4 feet in length.
Historically, the battles are fought in a circular outdoor arena called a ‘gayelle’ equipped with a specially assigned ‘blood hole’ where badly injured men or women would go to literally bleed their wounds. The Kalinda is always accompanied by the rhythms of African drums. The lead singer or ‘chantuelle’ (shant-well) would engage the crowd in high energy songs that charged the space and spirits of the fighters.
Linked historically to slave resistance and African spirituality, men who showed great prowess with the bois were feared, even by plantation owners. The carrying of sticks was even banned on the island in the 1800s. Today, the Kalinda, as it transitioned from Africa to Trinidad, is preserved primarily in the village of Moruga.
What may not have been as apparent to Europe as they shipped slaves to the Caribbean to ensure a steady supply of human labor for sugar and other industries was that, in addition to men and women gifted in agriculture, they were also bringing skilled warriors. This is how the art of Kalinda came to Trinidad. Post-Emancipation, combat art merged into performance art, and fighting stick became an integral part of local culture. Sadly, lack of enough young blood to competently take over the reins of this legacy meant its eventual relegation to rural Carnival competitions and its removal from the minds of new generations. Until…..
“It was 2006 and I was at the shipping docks,” says Keegan Taylor, stickfighter and co-founder of the Bois Academy of Trinidad and Tobago. “A stickfight was going on. The man in the ring was causing serious damage so other competitors were wary to jump in. Then this fighter entered and beat him real bad. I had never seen anyone fight like that man. He became a kind of hero for me and I decided I wanted to be like that. Two years later I went to Moruga and met a champion stickfighter called King David who started training me in the art of Kalinda.”
Keegan, along with business and combat partner Rondel Benjamin, founded the B.A.T.T in 2010. The men, both talented multi-disciplinary martial artists, were determined to revive and re-establish the links between generations via the art of Kalinda. Through research and extensive training under the careful instruction of the combat form’s greatest surviving legends, their organization has developed awareness of this amazing tribal fight technique, with the ultimate goal of re-establishing the Kalinda’s place in modern Trinidadian and Caribbean culture. In addition to the African fighting style, B.A.T.T also trains persons in Gatka (an East Indian stickfight style brought by indentured labourers in 1800’s) and Jab (the art of the flexible weapon used by Carnival’s Jab Jab figure).
Recently, the group has expanded its reach with interactive workshops and dynamic presentations that entice even the shyest of persons to pick up a bois and dance into the gayelle, educating groups on both combat technique and Kalinda’s spiritual legacy.
“People long ago would say that if a fighter was particularly skilled and known for having damaged many other stickmen, he probably had taken his bois to be subjected to a series of spiritual rituals including infusing it with the spirits of ancestral warriors,” Taylor says. “They would say the stick had been ‘mounted.'” With growing youth interest in the Kalinda, B.A.T.T is now entrusted with the task of recording and archiving this historical legacy for future generations.
With steadily growing recognition and respect regionally and internationally, opportunities are opening up for the team. Their projects include production of two albums; one of traditional lavways entitled Songs of the Gayelle, and the other an electronica-lavway mix. They have also been invited to host workshops at international seminars on Afro-Martial Arts and, most recently, been the topic of a feature-length documentary by filmmaker Christopher Laird, No Bois Man No Fraid.
Nearly two years in the making, the film seeks to give a deeper knowledge and understanding of stick fighting and features interviews from the old legends themselves. It may be the only recorded documentation of these elders there is. Having received stellar reviews at the 8th annual CaribbeanTales Festival in Toronto recently, it will receive its local premiere during the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival this month (screening at the Movie Towne cinema and Little Carib Theatre on Sept. 18 and 30, respectively.) The soundtrack is available for purchase from B.A.T.T. via the contact info below, and will be officially released later this year.
It is obvious that the revival of this almost-lost legacy is a labor of love for the men of the Bois Academy. The organization is always looking for interested persons who wish to train or simply learn about Kalinda. So, if visiting the lovely country of Trinidad, be sure to take a class. They can be contacted via email at: email@example.com or by phone, at (868) 290 2197.
For information on No Bois Man No Fraid, check out their Facebook page, or watch the trailer right here: