A nearly obscured candle flickered with hope beside a drum on which a man sat, beating out life’s pulse- thuuh-dum, thuuh-dum, thuuh-dum- as I swayed hypnotically to its charm. The musicians moved with this heartbeat of Kumina music; men and women were drumming drums, grating graters, and shaking shakers, while a surrounding ring of chanters called out for the deceased. Through this ceremony to help the dead pass on, life called out its beating pulse.
My host mom told me Jamaicans generally don’t talk about going to Kumina, the above described music and dance ceremony for someone who has just died. Some church members might call it heterodoxy, or even evil. Many people also associate Kumina with Obeah, which is often classified as Jamaica’s version of Voodoo. In the country with the most churches per square mile, this threat of rejection is real.
The Kumina I attended was in the parish of St Thomas, where these traditions hold steadfast. Because of its remoteness, Jamaican Christians were able to maintain and incorporate many of their African rituals into their Christian practice. “‘Kumina comes out of the Angola region- West Central Africa- and it’s survived in St Thomas as a largely African ceremony, one where the ancestral dead have the power to influence us beyond the grave.’“ (Ian Thomson, The Dead Yard)
During the ceremony, when the drummers beat their goatskin Kumina drums, they are calling to the ancestors of the person passing from our physical world to the spiritual realm. The Kumina rhythms are the language of the dead, and are used to transport spirits to here and now, specifically to help pass the spirit of the deceased to the next world. People sometimes become possessed by these ancestor spirits during Kumina. I didn’t witness this, but I believe possession takes many forms.
I watched as men splashed rum on their faces, drums, hair, even each other (in addition to drinking it with Pepsi). They focused on the beat, their togetherness, and their purpose; they were never once out of sync. I felt as if they played inside a snow globe, oblivious to the watchers and voyeurs surrounding them. I found myself swaying to the Kumina heartbeat, hitting each beat with the swish of my skirt.
After dancing, swaying, chatting, chanting, and looking by candlelight at shadowy figures on drums and shakers, we sped and bumped back to Port Morant to our homes and quiet streets. Dodging another pothole, the Kumina drum’s heartbeat pulsed in my head. I felt the urge to live mindfully, expansively, present, like a wide-eyed child seeing snow for the first time, stretching out her tongue to test its icy softness.
Who could have guessed a party for the dead would be so full of life?