Kumina is described as one of the most African religious expressions in Jamaica. Standing the test of time, Kumina has managed to survive the influences of Western culture. The language and the dances of Kumina are so undiluted that they can be traced back to tribes in the Congo in Africa.

In this photo the all female Kumina group of Port Morant, St. Thomas perform in 2006.


The influences that shaped Kumina landed in the 1850s with the arrival of African indentured immigrants from the Congo region of Central Africa during the immediate post-emancipation period. Kumina took root in St. Thomas where a large number of the immigrants settled. However, the religious spread to the parishes of Portland, St. Mary, St. Catherine and Kingston.

Kumina rituals are usually associated with wakes, burials or memorial services, but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences. Kumina dances are used when help is needed to win a court case or for winning a lover.

The dances associated with Kumina are also viewed as an intrinsically Jamaican art form and are performed for entertainment value by several Kumina groups and even the distinguished National Dance Theatre Company.

However, Kumina is sometimes viewed with suspicion as a form of witchcraft or “bad obeah” because of the trance-like state some of the participants fall into during the ceremonies. Those that are more informed about the religious expression have rubbished these superstitions but have warned against misuse of Kumina rituals. 

In this excerpt from an article in The Gleaner, a reporter speaks to the leader of a Kumina group in St. Thomas:

“When asked if the members practised obeah, Ephraim Bartley, the group's leader gave an emphatic "No". Obeah, he says is always for bad, while Kumina, despite being sometimes used for bad, is always meant for good.

According to the leader, persons have been healed and there are even some who have been raised from the dead.”




Both men and women are able to assume leadership of a Kumina sect. The men are called ‘King’ or ‘Captain’, while the women are referred to as ‘Queen’ or ‘Mother/Madda’. The leaders must be able to control zombies or spirits and assume leadership after careful training in the feeding habits, ritual procedures, dances, rhythms, and songs of a variety of spirits, from their predecessor.

Renowned 'Kumina Queen' Bernyce Henry balances a lit candle on a tin as she leads the Port Morant National and International Kumina Dancers at 'Falla Backa Mi' in 2005.




One of the distinct features of Kumina is the prominence of dance and ritual as a form of religious and cultural expression.

Dance and rituals are used to invoke communication with the ancestral spirits. The rituals involve singing, dancing, music and sacrificial offerings. All of these are used to create an atmosphere favorable for spiritual possession, known as ‘Mayal’.

One is said to "catch ‘Myal’" when possessed by one of the three classes of gods- sky, earthbound, and ancestral zombies- the last being the most common form of possession.  Each god can be recognized by the particular dance style exhibited by the possessed, and by songs and drum rhythms to which it responds.




The captivating sounds of Kumina emanates from several rudiment instruments, some that were transplanted from the Congo and others that were repurposed for these ceremonies. Here is a list of the instruments and songs used in Kumina ceremonies:


Kbandu (battery of drums)
Larger and lower pitched drums, on which the rhythm is played with emphasis on the first and third beats.


Playing Cast or lead drums
The most complicated and specific ‘spirit’ basic rhythms are played on this set of drums. The drummers on the Playing Cast are respected as they must be knowledgeable and competent in playing the variety of rhythms which invoke, repel, and control the many spirits or deities.


An ordinary grater that is used as an instrument.


A gourd or tin can rattles.


Catta Sticks
Used by the 'rackling men' to keep up a steady rhythm on the body of the drum behind the drummer.


Singing is a critical part of Kumina ceremonies and is divided into two types, Bailo and Country.
Bailo are songs in Jamaican creole and are less sacred, these songs are used for performances and exhibitions. On the other hand, Country involves the use of the Ki-Kongo language and is used to communicate with the spirits during mayal.
The Queen engages in call and response with the King/Captain, singing of both Bailo and Country songs.  Call and response means one line or verse is "raised" or sung then repeated by others in response.
In Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s examination of Kumina in the Jamaica Journal, he says that persons who perform Kumina for entertainment purposes are warned against using particular drums. It is also recommended that certain words in the songs be changed.
Regarding the Ki-Kongo language, in the mid 1950’s Edward Seaga in the course of completing a research project submitted 48 words from Kumina Country songs to The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Forty-one of those words were identified as Congolese.


An article from the Jamaica Journal outlines what happens at a Bailo dance:
“At Bailo dances, the spirits who are called make their presence known by ‘mounting’ or possessing a dancer; whose given dance style helps in identifying the spirit, but can span all possibilities of movement. 
The basic dance posture constitutes an almost erect back and propelling actions of the hips as the feet inch along the ground.  The dancers move in a circular pattern around the musicians and centre pole, either singly or with a partner. 
The arms, shoulders, rib cage, and hips are employed, offering the dancers ample opportunity for variations and interpretation of the counter-beats or poly-rhythms. Spins, dips, and ‘breaks’ on the last beat are common dance variations.”















Kumina has been brought popularized by several performance groups such as the Seaforth Dust to Dawn Kumina Group in St. Thomas and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC). However, Kumina was brought to the world stage by the efforts of the National Dance Theatre Company and the efforts of one of its founding members Rex Nettelford. 

Nettleford, in 1971, exposed the entire company of dancers, singers and drummers to the ceremony in Seaforth. The NDTC’s interpretation of Kumina is the signature piece of the NDTC and arguably the most performed dance-work in the repertoire since it was commissioned by Carreras Limited in 1971.

In the photo above, members of the NDTC perform 'Kumina'.

Kumina is a ritualistic medium through which our African ancestors are celebrated and appeased. It's an art form combining dancing, singing and drumming, and has distinctive movements and cadences that make it easily recognisable. The hypnotic sounds of Kumina drums is not easy to imitate, and very hard to duplicate.



Kumina: An Indigenous Religious Form. http://www.anngel.com/ACIJ/history-kumina.htm.  Accessed August 21, 2012

Kumina. http://www.nlj.gov.jm/jamaican-history-notes#kumina. Accessed August 21, 2012

Kumina. Jamaica Journal, Vol. 10 No. 1. March 1976. Published by the Institute of Jamaica

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau, The Spirit of African Survival in Jamaica. Jamaica Journal, No. 42. September 1978. Published by the Institute of Jamaica

Articles from The Gleaner

Kumina, still on NDTC's roster

Kumina still kicking in St Thomas

Africa live in kumina 

'A Nanny ting dis!' – Mother Moore has practised Kumina for decades

Blacksmith Gerald Walker – the real kumina king