Enter De Gayelle!

“Entering the ‘gayelle’ is a brave deed,  so much so that some individuals ‘braix’ (avoid) the mere thought of a ‘buss-head’. It is good sport to see a warrior bleed, but the possibility of having personal use of the ‘blood-hole’ at the centre of the ring is too much risk for most. On 25 February 2014, our playwriting class at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, was afforded the opportunity by our Lecturer (Award winning playwright and scholar) Tony Hall, to participate in a Kalinda (a stick dance/fight) workshop held by the Bois Academy. This workshop was very enlightening, it revealed some history about the martial tradition known as stickfighting and its place within the Trinbagonian ethnic and socio-political landscape. It also assisted in the discovery of meanings, which could be applied to Trinbagonian life and by extension the theatre.

Spectating at the 2014 Stickfighting finals at Skinners Park was my first real experience of the tradition, which makes the Bois Academy Workshop my second practical contact with the stickfighting tradition. Errol Hill’s The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National theatre, Louis Mc Williams’ postgraduate thesis: “Kalinda/Stickfight- Ritual, Form and Content: Its Implications for Caribbean Theatre“, Eric Roach’s Belle Fanto, Errol Hill’s Man Better Man, and Rawle Gibbons’ I Lawah are really good places to enter the world of the Boisman. However, all these secondary sources regardless of how informative or captivating, were not able to move the energies within me in the way that the stick fighting finals and the Bois Academy workshop did. The lessons learnt from the workshop can be summed up in the identification of five principles: ‘Doh (don’t) break the circle’, ‘Doh (don’t) Soca the Lavway’, ‘Doh (don’t) back’, ‘Any Boisman (Stickfighter) could Cut any Boisman’ and ‘Doh (don’t) squeeze your own bamsie (buttocks)’. I believe these concepts could be applied to an individual’s lifestyle as well as in the conceptualization of Caribbean theatre.

The word Calinda/Kalinda refers to three performative elements: song, dance, and stickfighting (Mc Williams). The workshop revealed that the Stickfight’s roots lie in both Africa and India and that it is present in various forms throughout the Caribbean and other parts of the post-colonial world. The purpose of this workshop was to help the playwriting class discover value in the uncovering of the histories, meanings and applications of the Calinda in the writing of plays. The workshop was successful in raising my interest in the tradition, it also spurred me into exploring how the ritual could surface in my own writing about Trinbagonian society, both with and without having my characters become actual stickfighters.

In addition to affirming that I am neither skilled at dancing nor am I particularly good at learning through observation, four commands and one warning given during the workshop remained with me. The workshop demanded that we form a gayelle (circle) as the space wherein the Calinda exists. ‘Doh Break the Circle’, this principle refers to more than shape of the congregation. Further to keeping the physical shape of the gayelle, this command referred to keeping our energies and attention focussed into the happenings of the gayelle. This lent to my understanding of Calinda as a ‘community activity’.

The gayelle that was formed called for us to look inwards towards the centre of the circle where we could see each other, rather than facing outwards with our backs to each other. This allowed for the energies to be focused and contained within the group, as opposed to be being dispersed away from the activity. For the activity to remain alive it is necessary for the both body and mind to be engaged. This led me to contemplate the significance of participating in an activity without ‘self’ alone in mind. It led to the discovery of a happiness which emerges from being a part of something bigger or beyond my own selfish existence. Whether it was through clapping, singing or dancing the energies need to flow freely, therefore maintaining the circle is important for the activity to exist in its purest form.

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Even though death could be the result of a stickfight, the gayelle became a space where a collective could release and share its energies in a way that would only be possible in sacred settings. This space exists without master or slave, boss or employee, husband or wife, boy or girl – only men/women with their bois (stick) – with equal opportunity to dance, sing and exchange blows as beautifully as possible.

Stickfighting is however, primarily a male activity, although women do become part of the gayelle as well (Mc Williams). Moreover, the idea of the circle stood out for me since it is associated with unity, equality, wholeness, and infinity. Circles have no beginning nor end, its features are absent of sides or corners and it is often seen as a protective symbol. The structure of the space for the Calinda presents a space where a people could commune with each other beyond the superficiality of ‘hellos’ and ‘how you doing’? Therefore, by not breaking the circle we are keeping the communion with each other alive, and we make it easier to empathise with each other. Thereby creating a closer knit community and by extension society. I see the circle as representative of a healthy society.

“Doh Soca the Lavway”, this principle refers to keeping the original form of the song. This lends to an idea of appreciating and preserving traditions for what they are and the meanings they carry. Additionally, some lavways are sung with a mournful tone which carries with it the call for strength from both the stickfighter and his family in accepting the possible outcome of a fight, an example of this is the lavway:

Muma muma!
Yuh son in the grave a’ready
Yuh son in the grave a’ready
Take a towel and ban yuh belly!
Muma muma!
Yuh son in the grave a’ready
Yuh son in the grave a’ready
Take a towel and ban yuh belly!

Although some lavways are supported with a more pulsing tempo, which is used together with the rhythm of the drums to release the energies of the fighters as they exchange blows, ‘Soca the lavway’ refers to changing the structure of the song to a contemporary happy-go-lucky rhythm that does not embody or have relevance to its original meanings. This concept extends beyond the ideas of applying a style of singing to a stage performance, it asks for an understanding of histories and their meanings instead of thoughtlessly imposing perceptions onto it.

The third principle discovered in this workshop is, ‘Doh Back’. If a stick fighter enters the gayelle without determination, especially against a more skilled opponent – his indecision could cost him much more than a finger or an eye. Likewise, in life we can cause a number of problems for ourselves and others if we consciously refuse to take responsibility for our actions. Moreover, indecision could cost the lives of people. If perchance your profession is that of a medical doctor, backing from your job can result in the loss of life. More importantly, the inability to take responsibility for your actions could cause pain for yourself and others. This concept calls for the ability to respect the decisions you make and having the courage to follow through with these decisions while also taking responsibility for your actions. This principle could be used to build and resolve tensions between characters in a play.

The fourth principle is ‘Any Boisman could Cut any Boisman’, this means that one should not underestimate or disrespect his opponent or fellow boisman. No matter how skilled you are or how much skill the other person lacks anyone could be injured during a contest of strength, will, skill and spirit. This principle calls for mutual respect, it reminds us of the golden rule or ethic of reciprocity (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Discussing this virtue in relation to our everyday lives is redundant. However, in relation to the theatre, if Augusto Boal’s interpretation of Aristotle’s declaration that “art imitates nature” (Art shows what nature ‘should be’ rather than ‘what it is’) is to be accepted, then this principle helps the playwright to promote the virtue of mutual respect between characters and by extension individuals within society.

The fifth and final principle is “doh squeeze your own bamsie”, this concept brings to the fore the issue of self-praise. In Trinidad as a people we have a tendency to inflate our own egos, especially at the cost of others. Additionally, we have an inclination to make ourselves appear greater than we really are. Whether it be through lying about negative results of an exam or simply deceiving others into thinking we are better than them. Regardless of the intention, feeding one’s own ego, carries with it meanings which denote ideas of superiority and seeing others as inferior. Therefore, it is not an activity that should be condoned; it is destructive and can lead to our own downfall. Self-praise is different from self-confidence, it is really the opposite, since self-confidence does not connote meanings of superiority of self, while simultaneously promoting negative perceptions of others.

Therefore, the value of the workshop lies in the discovery of the five principles: ‘Doh break the circle’, ‘Doh Soca the Lavway’, ‘Doh Back’, ‘Any Boisman could cut any Boisman’ and ‘Doh squeeze your own Bamsie’. These concepts can be applied beyond the context of the Calinda and everyday life. They can be used in the analysis of, and in the creation of Trinbagonian and by extension Caribbean theatre.


For more information concerning Kalinda view the documentary “No Bois Man No Fraid” and have a look at the Traditional Mas Archive.


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