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Kumina Traditions: Dance and Religion

Kumina, also spelt 'Cumina' is a dance-music ritual. It is primarily centered around communication with the ancestors of the Congo (African) people and their descendants in Jamaica. In other instances, Kumina is performed for mainly recreational purposes.

History of Kumina in Jamaica

It is widely believed that Kumina was brought to Jamaica by African slaves from the Congo in the 1840s to 1860s. Most of these African slaves settled in the parish of St. Thomas, while others settled in Portland, St. Catherine, St. Mary, Kingston and a few other areas. The strongest concentration of Kumina dance Groups can be found in St. Thomas.

Kumina as a Religion

Kumina is based on the Central African belief or religion which sees each person as possessing a dual soul. This dual soul consists of a personal spirit (which contains the personality of the individual) and the individual's shadow. Upon death, the personal spirit goes directly to the all-powerful god Nzambi Mpungu; these spirits can become ancestral spirits and return to earth. The shadow remains in the grave with the corpse but can leave it at will. If not given a proper burial the spirit can become a wandering spirit (Duppy) and a menace not only to family, but also to people in the community.

Originally, there seem to have been three Kumina spirits: sky, earth, and ancestral, however contemporary practitioners only acknowledge the ancestral spirits.

Kumina Ceremony

The main purpose of the Kumina ceremony is to summon the spirits to assist the living. During Kumina ceremonies, the spirits are summoned by songs and drumbeats to enter and possess dancers. This spirit possession is referred to as Myal.The personal spirit of a person possessed by ancestral spirits during Kumina rituals can, at death, join other ancestral spirits who are able to return to earth. These ancestral spirits can be called upon and used to help the living.

Traditionally, Kumina ceremonies are usually held when there is a death in the family, at wakes (ceremony for death) entombments, memorials. On the other hand, these ceremonies are also performed for celebrations such as births, weddings, thanksgiving, and so on. Ceremonies are intended to remove the wrong kind of spirit from someone afflicted with 'spirit sickness', and for healing. So in essence, Kumina is held to mark both individual life crises and family events, and as a result Kumina dances may take the form of private sessions or public ceremonies.

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Kumina Dance Movement and Settings

Singing, dancing and drumming are the three most important elements in a Kumina session. Sessions usually begins at sundown and takes place around a central pole. Specific colours are used for specific ceremonies, and this is reflected in the dress of the leading participants and in the decorations of the centre pole.

The leader of the Kumina ceremony plays a central role. The leader is called a King or Queen and is a permanent leader with a band of disciples. The leader is expected to be an expert in the dances and rituals and usually has served a long apprenticeship before attaining the highest position in the band. It is the leader who controls the spirits and therefore the success or otherwise of the ceremony. In his or her role of spirit medium, the King or Queen uses spirit conductors such as white Rum (sprayed) or dances with a glass of water balanced on the head to catch the spirit. The leader will also supervise the sacrifice of a fowl (chicken) or goat, of which the blood is regarded as food for the spirits. Two types of songs, associated with the main types of ceremonies, are usually sung: African 'country' songs which are the most sacred and 'bailo' songs.

The drum rhythms are central to a Kumina ceremony and used to summon and control different types of spirits. Drummers, like leaders, serve a long apprenticeship and are highly respected because of their great importance to the success of a ceremony. While the leader can be male or female, only men play the Kumina drums. Before each ceremony, the heads of the drums are blessed with a libation of white rum.

Kumina Drums and Instruments

The drums constitute the Kumina ensemble, playing a specific rhythm: the Kbandu (or Bandu) and the Playing Kyas (or Playing Cyas). The Kbandu is a large hollow drum regarded as the 'male' and on it is played the basic rhythm. The head is made from ramgoat skin which during construction is repeatedly stretched and sprayed with white rum to attain the proper pitch. Playing Kyas is the lead instrument, the 'female' drum, the smaller of the two, the head covered with skin of a ewe goat. It is constructed the same as Kbandu, but is pitched higher and plays more complicated rhythms. Both drums are played with the hands, though; the tone of the Kbandu can be changed by ressure applied by the foot. The drummers straddle the drums to play.

Other instruments include the shakers (called 'shak-shak), scrapers, clappers and catta sticks (cyatas). Catta sticks are used by the 'rackling men' to play a rhythm on the body of the drum behind the drummer.

Reference: JLS