The Gombeys, the colorfully dressed masked dancers and drummers of Bermuda, represent a rich folklife tradition that reflects this tiny island’s wide-ranging roots—namely West African, British, Caribbean, and Native American.
Similar to Afro-Caribbean dances that evolved in the Bahamas and St. Kitts, Gombey was developed several centuries ago by Bermuda’s slave population to give artistic expression to the indignities they suffered at the hands of their owners. “We don’t have any language from the slaves who were here; we don’t have their arts,” says Bermuda historian Ruth Thomas. “We have very little about where we’ve come from, so thank goodness that we have the Gombey tradition.”
Historically, Gombey was disparaged by the island’s ruling class, who viewed the high-energy performances as a threat to the social order. As a consequence, Gombey troupes—members which donned masks and full-coverage costumes to conceal their identities—were strictly controlled, allowed to dance only once a year or banned completely.
Fortunately, in recent decades, the Gombey troupes and their irresistibly pulsating street performances (gombey means “rhythm” in Bantu) have come to be regarded as a cherished tradition, as well as high art, on the island. “[Locals now] feel this is a Bermudian thing…part of our culture, and they want to be [involved],” Thomas says.
And therein lies the irony of the Gombey as a symbol for Bermuda. They are born from, and remind us of a sinister and unresolved chapter in our history – slavery - and the social and economic oppression of Black people that followed it.
Were the tensions of race relations not so ubiquitous in local life, the Gombeys could indeed stand as a national symbol of resolution and respect. Instead their adoption into the mainstream suggests we’d rather wear a mask of unity, than tread the path to equality.
This is not to suggest that the Gombeys cannot be appreciated by all who live or visit here, because they can be. How they are appreciated, and more importantly how they are respected, depends on recognising them as a living embodiment of a struggle that continues to this day.
Much like Cup Match, the Gombeys do not completely belong to Bermuda. The fact that the tradition not only survived, but transcended the forces it once resisted, speaks to the spirit and perseverance of Black Bermudians.
Throughout Bermuda’s history, no other tradition has remained intact. Gombey has been handed down from generation to generation, retaining its authenticity and continuing to serve its original purpose – an expression of humanity and freedom of spirit, in the face of unfathomable cruelty and indignation.
Writing for the Smithsonian Institution’s Centre for Folklife Cultural Heritage, Ronald Lightbourne interviewed Allan Warner, the Captain of Warner’s Gombeys, who explained that some of his troupe’s dances “are freedom dances, wherein dancers celebrate an absence of shackles and chains on the limbs.”
In that context, the unbridled enthusiasm and energy of both the dancers and the drummers takes on new meaning. Furthermore the dances, which exhibit a flowing sense of improvisation, are actually choreographed with militaristic precision and discipline and visually depict stories of inspiration and freedom.
For example, Mr Lightbourne explained that the Warner Gombeys express, as African stories, themes such as, ‘Johnny and His Spear’, ‘Sampson and Delilah’, and ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’. Other stories, he wrote, depict the Hunter’s Return and pay homage to the earth and sky.
The originations of the Gombey, like so many Bermudian traditions, are lost in the shrouds of undocumented history.
That said, it is commonly understood that the tradition emerged from the African and Native American cultures of Bermudian slaves.
Interestingly, those slaves existed in relative isolation. As early as 1676, a ban was placed on the importation of slaves, leading to a black population that was largely Bermuda born. This ban, by the way, was not a reaction to the abhorrent nature of slavery, but rather to limit the number of black people on the island.
Historic references to the Gombeys date back to at least the 18th Century. For example, the Bermuda Legislature banned Gombey dancing in 1761 as a reaction to a slave conspiracy to revolt.
Post abolition Bermuda saw an increase in immigration of black people from the Caribbean, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and they would surely have brought similar traditions that would have influenced the Gombeys.
Historians also surmise a British impact, which can be found in the military style of drumming. How or why this happened is unclear, but it could simply be the proximity of blacks and whites in Bermuda and availability of instruments.
The Gombeys developed a unique style of drumming, dancing and story-telling, that can be found nowhere else. There is a variety of style amongst the island’s Gombey troupes that emerged in different parts of Bermuda and through different family traditions.
Still, there are core components to a Gombey troupe and while the size of the troupe can range from 10-30 members, the following crowd, that is integral to the proceedings, creates a much larger event.
The colourful costumes cover the Gombey from head to toe, with bright, colourful tassels, a cape, a towering peacock-feathered headdress and, of course, the mask, which hid the identity of the dancers from their slave owners.
The Gombey weapons, the tomahawk, shield, bow and arrow and whip, reflect the Native American influence and also convey the spirit of resistance. The troupe consists of a Captain who, through the commands of a whistle, directs the flow of the dancers. There is also the Wild Indian, the Trapper and Chiefs and Warriors.
The dancers range in age from adults to small children and while traditionally an all male spectacle, recently there has been an all female Gombey troupe.
The drummers are the life beat of the dance. They play a Mother drum, which provides the main beat, side drums for the rhythm, and snare drums, which according to Mr Lighbourne, often engage in call and response patterns while striking both the rim of the snare as well as the skin. He described the result as “an exhilarating, intoxicating, rhythmic mix which provides the impulse for both the dancers as well as the followers.” Anyone who has witnessed the Gombeys would definitely concur.
The only day off for the slaves was Boxing Day and New Years Day, therefore traditionally, those were the days the Gombeys marched the streets.
Today, Gombeys are a staple at local events and have also captured the imagination of spectators when performing overseas. They are an ever-present symbol for marketing Bermuda and provide excitement and mystique to tourist activities and events.
Their appeal to visitors and foreigners as an exotic and mesmerising local custom is easy to understand. The driving beat, sharp whistle, moving mosaic of colour and the relentless energy of the dancers make passive observance impossible.
However, for locals, there is a deeper significance and connection to our past, present and future. Through understanding and respect, the mask may one day fall away, leaving only the unique and enduring drumbeat and dance of Bermuda.