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Salvaging honour among Gombeys

Leap of faith: the Gombeys are aware of the need for a period of healing in the relationship with the Bermuda public after the wild scenes that spoilt the new year’s holiday festivities (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Growing up Black in Bermuda, the only thing that could compare for excitement to a football penalty shoot-out in a cup match at night was the news of an imminent Gombey clash. The best dancers and best drummers from rival troupes facing off — and we have had some seriously good ones — with proud captains and elders overseeing the festivities to ensure that the emotion of the occasion does not boil over, and hundreds of frenzied followers joining in on the “Ay-Oh” chant.

Sadly, on Monday, on the public observance of the New Year’s Day holiday, we got 2023 off to a start that was so very reminiscent of 2022 — a year pockmarked with antisocial behaviour and community violence.

So, should it be any wonder that a Gombey clash that is meant to highlight all of what is exciting about being imbued with this fantastic tradition within our culture — among the few exports that significantly burnish Bermuda’s reputation — instead provides a looking-glass view into the reality that is the breaking-point existence of so many of our young Black men?

The Gombey art form is a product of African, British and Native American traditions that emerged in the Caribbean, and now bears such a distinctly Bermudian flavour that we can say we own it. So much so that more than half a century ago, there came due recognition from the United Nations at a Unesco Cultural and Conservation Conference.

Parading through the streets of “back-a-town”, “up de country (west)” or “down de country (east)” as the descendants of enslaved persons, we celebrate emancipation by way of sound, dance and colour. As time went on and popularity grew, Gombeys were allowed on the streets of Hamilton, where as once the undesirables of Bermudian society, they and their followers got to proudly stick out their chests while those unique beats echoed through the corridors of economic power and cascaded off the harbour — and the merchants of Front Street, Reid Street, Church Street and their offshoots paid homage.

Occasionally, as troupes’ paths crossed, there would be the impromptu clash, with the winners decided by whom the bulging crowds favoured more in the various battles of dancers designated by their captains. And, as myth would have it, the emphasis on perfection was real as the triumphant were said to have danced away with all the day’s earnings from both troupes. So no pressure.

The Gombey is so intrinsically part of the Bermudian fabric that the Government finally in modern times put in place an annual festival, which since 2017 has morphed into a weekend of activity. Held every autumn, it remains one of the highlights of the cultural calendar. Gombeys have appeared on postage stamps, have provided countless role models, and there is talk of prominence on the new $20 note. The road to full acceptance has been long, but there can be no mistaking in 2023 that they are us and we are them.

It is why the events of Monday night are highly disappointing, more so than the bog-standard public disorder that does not result in serious harm, especially in that they came merely 24 hours after Leon “Sparky” Place was honoured with the appointment as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in King Charles III’s maiden New Year Honours.

Sparky possesses the broadest of smiles, and to see him in action during his heyday as captain of the Place’s troupe was to be a witness to boundless energy, unparalleled athleticism, passion and no shortage of discipline. But that smile would have been downturned as he viewed this week’s scenes, through whatever medium, as that discipline that the Gombeys are famed for in their structured choreography of dance moves and beats violently broke down. Especially along Union Street as punches were thrown and wooden hatchets were swung with great force, with the painting of people’s champion E.F. Gordon coming eerily into view — a most unkind association, for sure, but a sign of these times.

However, he will have been heartened by the swift action of the Bermuda Gombey Council, which convened on Wednesday night after news of the ill-fated clashes went viral on social media and elsewhere.

In a media statement, the group said: “Much work has been done over the past few years to strengthen the ties between each Gombey troupe, and as role models in the community, the Bermuda Gombey leaders are committed to retaining these connections and working together to preserve the culture they all love. The impacted troupes have internally dealt with those that escalated tensions and all troupes have created policies to deter antisocial behaviour and promote unity within the culture.”

If only our political leaders could move to calm socioeconomic distress in our community with such alacrity.

It was not exactly outlined what these “policies” might be or the severity of the internal discipline, but — notwithstanding that the police still have inquiries to make and if there are prosecutions to follow, so be it — the Gombeys have earned the right to colour outside the lines, knowing that with January being their self-declared “Gombey Month”, the public will decipher possibly as soon as Saturday whether the statement has genuine teeth or if they were subjected to a showy exhibition of smoke and mirrors.

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Published January 06, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated January 05, 2023 at 3:02 pm)

Salvaging honour among Gombeys

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