I’ve been street performing on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder for almost 20 years. Another performer, Ibash-I (pronounced ee-BAH-shee), the contortionist I’ve been performing alongside for about 15 years, is being threatened with deportation from the United States. The following story is about why I support Ibash-I in his fight against deportation.
When I first began street performing back in 1985, doing a juggling and unicycling show in the New Orleans French Quarter, I was inspired by some of the other performers, such as jugglers and magicians. One of those performers was a contortionist — a 6-foot-tall skinny black man with dreadlocks.This performer would sit on a rug with his legs stretched out to both sides with his chest and chin resting on the ground. He would sit in this position motionless as a curious crowd gathered in a circle around him. He would begin by shaking his head side to side and, after moments of silence, would talk to his growing audience in a Caribbean accent.
“Hello,I’d like to introduce myself,”he would say.“My name is Ibash-I,and I come from a small island in the Caribbean called St.Kitts,better known as St.Christopher,and to make a long story short I’m going to perform a variety of postures.”
Then he would strike and hold a myriad of amazing postures — contortions with his body that are better demonstrated with photos than explained with words.
After performing several postures,he would explain how he was able to do what he does by talking about his lifestyle,saying,“I live on a diet of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables,raw nuts, pure water,constant practice and sufficient rest.”
He would conclude his show by fitting himself into a small plastic box and joking that he likes to get sent back home to the Caribbean in his box, C.O.D. He would then invite the audience to put money into his bucket.
What I found intriguing about Ibash-I was that unlike most street performers, who grabbed an audience’s attention using loud music, yelling or fire, Ibash-I used an overwhelming stillness when he was stretched out on his rug and was just as effective as the other successful crowd gatherers. Another subtle but powerful quality of his show was the way he charmed his audience not just with words — jokes about his postures — but with quiet gestures, like waving to people with his foot, which was behind his ear, or when he signaled for people to applaud by clapping his hands, which were against his upper back. I saw that to be successful as a street performer it wasn’t necessary to be overly aggressive.
What was inspiring for me as a beginning street performer trying to find my niche in entertainment was that even though Ibash-I was performing, he wasn’t pretending. His show was an expression of a way of life that went on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was a way to introduce people to this lifestyle, which is about living close to nature and a devotion to something beyond what could be totally seen or understood.
In 1991, I moved to Boulder, where I started performing on the Pearl Street Mall. After I had been performing on Pearl Street for about three years, Ibash-I also moved to Boulder, where he and I shared the same performing space. Sharing the space with Ibash-I was very easy because he had a relatively short show, and near the end of his show he always introduced me, saying,“And after my show, stick around, because David will be next.”The crowd would alternate between the two of us indefinitely.
But business on the Pearl Street Mall didn’t always go so smoothly. Sometimes, there were so many performers in a limited space that it would be hard to do a lot of shows. During these times, Ibash-I would sometimes get impatient about waiting for other performers before he could do a show, since his show was only 15 minutes long, while some of the other performers went on for 45 minutes to an hour. Most performers, including myself, have gotten into a conflict with Ibash-I over performing space, but these conflicts, as intimidating as they seemed, never resulted in violence, as Ibash-I was like a dog that had a nasty bark but never bit anyone. In fact, when he does his show and he wants his audience to move closer, he tells them,“Move up. You don’t have to be afraid of me, I’m a vegetarian.”
The main problem that Ibash-I complained about when he was on the Pearl Street Mall was that some performers would not respect the audience. These performers gathered crowds by insulting or teasing the audience. They insulted people who were walking by or spent a lot of time talking about a trick they were going to do before actually doing the trick.
Ibash-I told them directly and very “in their face” that they were not performing genuinely, and he would openly and bluntly criticize them, saying, “All you do is insult people. That’s not entertainment.” Or, “If you have something to give, then give it. Stop bullshitting.”
It is unusual for someone, especially in this culture, to be outspoken about how they feel because it’s not easy to say something that might sound unpopular, politically incorrect or just plain mean. But then again, Ibash-I comes from a different background.
Growing up on the tropical island of St. Kitts, he lived among animals such as monkeys and deer. Spending time with them as a little kid, he absorbed the way they lived, how they moved, and how they got still and comfortable. It was through spending time with the animals that he began what was to become a lifelong training in the art form he calls Rasta Yoga. He would practice putting his naturally flexible body into various postures based on his observations of the animals.
As a teenager, Ibash-I performed his contortions at shows around St. Kitts for various events. After a couple of years of this, the government of St. Kitts recognized Ibash-I and included him as part of a team of performers who represented St. Kitts during cultural exchange events that took place throughout the Caribbean islands. Ibash-I traveled and performed all over the Caribbean for several years. When he was on tour he met an American woman, another performer, and the two of them traveled to the United States. There, Ibash-I began street performing and came to New Orleans, where I first met him.
Back on the island, when living with the animals, Ibash-I developed another gift in addition to being a contortionist, which he calls the gift of feeling.
“You can’t always believe what you see because your eyes can deceive you,” he says. “And, you can’t always trust what you hear or what you read because words can fool you. But your feelings don’t lie, and if you can feel, you can connect with and see a bigger and truer picture.”
He applies this to street performing, saying, “The bigger picture is that when performers put on shows where the audience is spending more time waiting for something to happen than exclaiming, ‘Wow!’ the audience will not stick around for the next show. You can’t have a show without an audience, and if the audience is disrespected, there are consequences.”
Ibash-I applies his idea about how being in touch with feelings leads to a bigger perspective, to life beyond the Pearl Street Mall.
“Similarly, people cannot disrespect the Earth that sustains them without feeling the effects somewhere down the road with pollution, bad health, wars, poverty, etc.,” he says. “If you take care of the Earth, the Earth will take care of you. If we develop a relationship with the Earth instead of trying to manipulate and control it, we would all be much better off.”
What Ibash-I is saying sounds similar to what environmentalists are saying about living in harmony with the Earth. However, Ibash-I has a point of view that is very different — one that he acquired growing up with the animals. According to Ibash-I, the most important thing for having a relationship with the Earth is to be in touch with how you feel. The next important thing is to express what you feel, even if it’s a negative emotion like anger. By expressing how you feel, you allow your emotions to pass through your mind and body instead of getting stuck, and also you communicate to others how you feel, building better connections with other people and to the Earth they inhabit.
Back to the Pearl Street Mall. It was always a good feeling when Ibash-I did a show and his audience would stay around afterward to see other shows, including mine. I was glad he was performing on the mall. But he might not be on the mall much longer because of some incidents with law enforcement.
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In 2007, Ibash-I was driving from Denver to Boulder when he was pulled over by the police, possibly because he looked suspicious. The police searched his car and found two marijuana joints and gave Ibash-I a ticket for possession of marijuana.
Later, in 2008, Ibash-I was near the Pearl Street Mall where he was caught by a police officer buying a small bag of marijuana from a guy. Ibash-I told the officer that marijuana is part of his lifestyle and culture and that he should have the right to use it. The officer then gave him a ticket, and the judge sentenced Ibash-I to do community service.
Ibash-I telling the police officer that he should have the right to pursue his lifestyle might sound like a rebellious teenager saying to an authority figure, “Leave me alone, I can smoke pot if I want.” But this was not the case. Ibash-I, no matter what the circumstance, expresses how he feels and hasn’t been brought up to say, ‘Yes sir,’ even though he didn’t mean any disrespect toward the officer. But there is more to it than that.
Ibash-I explains that the Earth provides medicines for assisting people in getting in touch with how they feel. One of those medicines, the one that Ibash-I prefers, is marijuana, which for him is not used for merely getting stoned or high. He was expressing to the officer what he feels is his right to pursue his lifestyle of being in touch with his feelings.
The problem Ibash-I had with the marijuana law became trouble when, in 2009, he was returning to the United States from a visit to St. Kitts, and the plane stopped in Puerto Rico, where a customs official saw his record, which showed up on a computer screen. The record listed these marijuana incidents, and the immigration authorities took away his green card and are now threatening to deport him. His trial is scheduled for Sept. 30.
If Ibash-I gets deported, it would be a hassle not just for him. He is rooted in the community of Boulder, not just as a performer, but also because he has five kids, four of whom are in Colorado. He supports his kids through his performances on the mall.
In order to be closer to his kids, he chooses to stay in Boulder during the winter off-season, instead of migrating to warmer climates like most full-time street performers do. I sometimes see him on a cold winter day on the mall shoveling snow to make a space to perform. Even when it looks impossible to draw a crowd, as tourists are not abundant, he sometimes miraculously pulls off a show. Watching him perform through the winter, I am reminded to keep persisting, keep trying, even at times when it all looks hopeless.
During the challenging off-season times, Ibash-I never loses his sense of humor. Once as I was walking by on a dreary winter day on the mall, I asked him, “What’s going on, Ibash-I?” He said, “Doing what I do best.” To which I replied, “What’s that? Smoking dope?” And he laughed, a unique kind of laugh with his jaw hanging open.
Another challenging time might come on Sept. 30, when a judge will determine whether he will stay in America or be deported back to St. Kitts. This trial, to Ibash-I, is about more than just whether he will be deported, as it has to do with our relationship with the Earth. Ibash-I says people are primarily Citizens of the Earth and should have the right to exist wherever they happen to be. And that like animals who migrate according to season and situation, people should simply be allowed to let the connection with the Earth influence where and how they live.
I don’t know whether Ibash-I’s idea that many of our problems can be solved by having a better connection with the Earth can apply in all situations, as if it’s all that simple. What I’m also uncertain about is the outcome of his trial, as I don’t know if Ibash-I’s lawyer will have more compelling reasons for him to stay in America than the prosecutor will have for having him deported, or whether the judge will be generous with Ibash-I, his kids and the community.
But what I am sure of is this: Whatever the outcome of the trial, Ibash-I will always persist and will always be an inspiration.