Video: Gombeys Highlighted In ‘Behind the Mask’

May 23, 2015

A video by photojournalist and National Geographic Traveler contributor Bob Krist serves to outline the rich history of Bermuda’s Gombey tradition.

The video explores the roots of the Gombey tradition on the island, touching on its West African origins, its relation to the ownership of slaves in Bermuda, and even the etymology of the word ‘Gombey’ itself.

The video description says, “A short piece about the Gombey dancers of Bermuda. The tradition originated in West Africa and came to the island with the slave trade. The dance has had a long and storied history.

“Once reviled and outlawed by the small island, Gombeys are now a cherished and vital part of Bermuda’s history and culture.”

Bermuda’s Ruth Thomas narrates the video, saying of the Gombeys, “They are one of the entities that helps to show off a part of the Bermudian culture.”

Gombeys – Behind the Mask:

“Now where on earth did this Gombey tradition come from?

“As far as we know it is out of West Africa. In fact, the word “Gombey” is a Bantu word meaning rhythm, or in the Congo, means drum. In the early years when the Gombeys started, most of them would have been slaves,” adds Ms Thomas.

“One of the things they did was to reinact some of the atrocities they experienced at the hands of their slave masters. So the costumes really were meant to hide their identity.

“They all wear a cape, but you can tell by the length of the cape who the captain is; he’s the one who gives the orders. His cape is the longest cape very often, and in most cases his cape is black velvet.”

“And within their cape, there are lots of bits of mirror, little broken pieces of shiny glass and I’m told that that’s to scare away evil spirits.

“A Gombey crowd will always incorporate children in the group. The children of the warriors, fully costumed just like the adult dancers, and they carry the tomahawks.

“They are watched by children who are not members of a Gombey crowd but who want to be able to do the dance because they feel this is a Bermudian thing, this is definitely a part of our culture and they want to be able to be involved in it.”

“The tradition is handed down through families. The son of a captain can become a captain, then his son can become a captain, or a cousin but it can’t be any and anybody.

“People often wonder when they can see the Gombeys, how often do they come out? Well, there was a time when they would come out and dance whenever they wanted to and then there was suddenly a law that banned them from appearing because you have whole lot of them dancing at any one time.

“We only see them in public on special holidays. Now what is wonderful is when one Gombey crowd meets another Gombey crowd, the dance and drum to the death. It’s just beautiful.

“The drums that they used are very much like the drums the that English militia uses.

“The carrying of the tomahawk and the bow and arrow is a reminder of our native american heritage. So all of those influences on either the music or the dance itself, at least helped us to hold on to a little bit of our African heritage.

“Because we don’t have any language from the slaves who were here; we don’t have there arts. We have very little about where we’ve come from.

“So thank goodness that we have the Gombey tradition,” adds Ms Thomas.

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  1. Mockingjay says:

    As African descendants this is one of the only Traditions we have that was not taken from us ( even though they tried to ban it), but it goes to show you that even today when you see a Black Bermudian wearing a Dashiki you get negative comments from people.
    When you have a people who have had their culture, language and identity ripped away from them, and especially punished for practicing it, shows the psychological damage that has taken effect, even after 400 years of working free and 50 years of injustice and segregation, we still are a Strong, Powerful and Resilient People.
    Beautiful Documentary , hope they show it in the schools.