Let me tell you about Sally Brown . . .

Laurel Aitken in Chicago at the Subterranean in 1995. Photo by Heather Augustyn

Laurel Aitken in Chicago at the Subterranean in 1995. Photo by Heather Augustyn

So I love me some Laurel Aitken, and I’m singing along in my car to Sally Brown driving down the highway and my son starts laughing. I’ve belted out these lyrics so many times I don’t hear them anymore, but my son’s fresh ears pick up on perhaps the silliest words to ever grace a ska song–yes, the cukumaka stick. What the heck is a cukumaka stick? I decided I’d find out.

The cukumaka stick is actually a coco macaque stick. It was first used by the Arawaks in battle, even though they were largely a peaceful people. The Arawak, or Taino Indians as they were sometimes called, were one of the native people of the Caribbean. They came to the islands of the Caribbean from Guyana or perhaps from other islands in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. They were still a Stone Age people whose tools were primitive and they were an agricultural and fishing people.

The Arawaks used the coco macaque, a heavy solid strong stick or club, as a tool, but they also used it to bludgeon their victims or enemies in combat. In Haiti, the coco macaque stick was called “the Haitian Peace Keeper.” In Cuba, where Laurel Aitken was born, it was called “the Cuban Death Club.” And in New Orleans, the coco macaque stick is called “the Zombie Staff” or “Spirit Stick.”

Coco Macaque stick from the Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti Exhibit, photographed on 11/8/14 by Heather Augustyn.

Coco Macaque stick from the Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti Exhibit, photographed on 11/8/14 by Heather Augustyn.

The coco macaque stick was used in Cuba and Haiti as a weapon and became a part of the cultural vernacular after it was used by the dictatorial regimes in Cuba and Haiti against political activists. During the regime of Papa Doc in Haiti, the coco macaque stick became a symbol associated with the “guaperia,” or his military. According to one article, the “Cocomacaco was the main weapon of the notorious tonton macutes, his the personal body guards.”

The Daily Gleaner on March 1, 1915 wrote of  a coco macaque stick when reporting on a corrupt Haitian dictator who stole money from the country’s coffers. It stated, “He could only find a few thousand pounds to seize, though he sent an army to make the levy: an army strongly armed with superdread-nought cocomacaque sticks.”

Aitken is likely informed by many of these interpretations of the coco macaque stick, but perhaps none as much as the one in his own country which saw the coco macaque stick as a weapon associated with slavery. On the Cuban sugar plantations, slave owners beat their slaves with a coco macaque stick. The weapon later became a “tool of correction” used by men on women, and there was a Cuban proverb that said that wives should be “corrected with cocomacaco hard,” which may also shed light on why, when Laurel Aitken was once asked about this lyric, he hinted at a sexual connotation, as was common in the calypso, mento, and subsequent musical traditions–just think of Jackie Opel’s “Push Wood” for an example with a similar object–wood–but there are dozens if not hundreds of others with different objects–shepherd rods, needles, etc.

The coco macaque stick also had a life all its own. The Taino Indians and Haitians who practiced Voodou believed that the coco macaque stick walked by itself. The owner could send the coco macaque stick to run errands or dirty work, and if the coco macaque stick hit someone on the head, they would then be dead by morning.

Coco Macaque stick from the Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti Exhibit, photographed on 11/8/14 by Heather Augustyn.

Coco Macaque stick from the Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti Exhibit, photographed on 11/8/14 by Heather Augustyn.

Here is some information I found in an article on voodoo: “Coco macaque is what many refer to as a very real magical Haitian vodou implement or black magicians helping tool. Made of Haitian Coco-macaque palm wood or what ever wood one has at hand it is basically just simple thick 1 to 2 inch wooden cane, which is supposed to be possessing one of many magical powers, The strangest one is that to be able to stand up and walk on its own. Though it’s appearance of walking is described more like a hopping or bouncing action. This Voodoo Magic walking stick is not bound by gravity and is said to bounce off of houses and homes and even roofs as it travels to it’s commanded destination. Sometimes many people might refer to them as Voodoo Zombie Canes and swear that by all known accounts and means that they or it is possessed by the spirits of the dead. By all old Haitian accounts many will tell you that it is a simple design or sometimes crudely hand carved by a voodoo black magic priest using what ever found wood is available to them at the time. And it is a cursed or controlled by specific spirit that causes the walking stick to appear to move all by itself.”

Here are the lyrics to that classic Laurel Aitken tune, Sally Brown:

She boogey, she boogey, she boogey down the alley
Let me tell you about Sally Brown
Sally Brown is a girl in town
She don’t mess around
Let me tell you about Sally Brown
Sally Brown is a slick chick.
She hits you with a cukumaka stick
Cukukukukumaka stick
Hits you with a Cukumaka stick

Have a listen to this classic tune: Sally Brown by Laurel Aitken

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