TRINIDAD’S KALINDA STICKFIGHTS
TRINIDAD’S KALINDA STICKFIGHTS
The Trinidad stick fight called kalinda (or kalenda) survives mainly as a dance form – an artistic representation of the real thing. The real thing of the nineteenth century was a fearsome activity that should forever remain in the past.
It is believed that kalinda began around 1860 when the freed slaves organized themselves into competing bands and held performances. Men, women and children gathered to sing, dance and be entertained by stick fights.
The aim of each stick fighter was to deliver a blow that would hit the opponent on the body – any part above the waist – hard enough to fell him to the ground. Blows were usually aimed at the head and damage to the skull was a very common occurrence in stick fighting.
The rules of the game were few. Hitting “under the belt” or striking a player when he fell or was forced to kneel was an infringement. Again, as long as a player’s skull was cut he had to retire and drain the blood into the “blood hole”, a hollow made for this purpose in the ground in the center of the fighting ring.
The stick used was between three and four feet long and was about seven-eighths of an inch in diameter. It was made of cog-wood, the wood of the yellow poui tree or even the sour guava.
There were secret formulas for cutting the wood and preparing a stick. One method was to cut a stick when “the moon was weak” and the night was dark. The bark was then peeled off and the stick was pushed into the heart of a rotting banana tree trunk and left there for seven days and seven nights. It was then taken out, covered with tallow, and buried in a manure heap where it “cured” for fourteen days. After this, the stick was removed and was bent and rolled. It was then concealed in a dark place for seven more days before it was considered ready for use.
The stick men gave their weapons frightful names like “Tamer”, and “Groaning”.
Fighters were colorfully dressed. Some shaved their heads clean and covered them with small iron pots over which head cloths were tied, and crowns fitted. A long-sleeved shirt of silk carried a breastplate of metal or of embossed leather, decorated with gilded buttons. Around the waist some fighters tied a ribbon or wide sash, usually red in color. The long trousers were decorated with rows of colored buttons. Alpargatas or flat shoes completed the outfit. The fighters tied red handkerchiefs around the wrists, and often a long ribbon corresponding to the band’s colors was tied across the shoulders and allowed to hang down in a long tassel.
Every band had a chantwell (or shantwell). He was a singer who praised and encouraged his own band and ridiculed the stick fighters of the competing band.
Over time, stick-fighting tournaments became features of the major holidays, chiefly Easter Monday, August First and Christmas Day. Each village had its square where visiting challengers clashed with local kings.
Shades of kalinda continue into contemporary Trinidad. Before Carnival each year, when the shantwells rehearsed, tenement dwellers joined in the Kalinda songs. In these backyards with fantastic names like “Hell Yard”, “Toll Gate”, “Behind the Bridge”, “Concrete Yard”, “Mafoombo Yard”, the earliest carisoes (later, calypsos) were sung.
The matadors, bad-johns, stickmen, prostitutes, drummers and the singers and the dancers performed at these gatherings. Each yard had its “Kalinda King” who led his band. Each yard developed its own warriors, champions and experts.
It was from this highly organized folk institution that the calypso emerged, and today this is kalinda’s chief claim to fame. The bloody stick fights have gone – gone the way of the equally violent (perhaps more violent) duel in Europe and America.
Today kalinda may be seen as choreographed performances on- or off-stage, in which teams of fighters compete against each other. Such performances often include much singing and dancing. They still contain elements of the original, however, and stick-wielding performers must remain extremely careful, lest they injure one another.