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Community tribute to Gombey master Leon ‘Sparky’ Place

Legend’s send-off: the SMS Gombey troupe march in honour of Leon “Sparky” Place, who has died at the age of 77 (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Gombeys gathered last night for a send-off for the longstanding grandmaster of one of the island’s Gombey troupes, with drumming and whistles at sunset ahead of a march.

The tribute at Cedar Hill in Warwick honoured Leon “Sparky” Place, the oldest surviving member of the original Place’s Gombeys, formed in 1957.

Mr Place, 77, died on Friday. Tucoma Robinson, his youngest son and a member of another troupe, SMS, said that he had suggested wearing full regalia for the nightly practice at Purvis Primary School in Warwick.

“Someone said we should do an honour march. I thought it was a great idea.”

Mr Robinson’s post on social media spread the word quickly, with Gombeys from various groups assembling outside the school while onlookers gathered at the verge of St Mary’s Road to watch.

Mr Place, a former captain of Place’s Gombeys, joined the troupe as a child, committing his life to carrying on the unique Bermudian traditional art form.

As Gombeys warmed up at sunset, Mr Robinson called the march to order.

“My father was always humble, and one thing he always taught was the warrior spirit — what that looked like, the culture.”

He added: “You can see it looking around. He touched a lot of lives. We’re going to make some noise and set the streets on fire for sure tonight.”

A minute of silence was called, with a whistle to announce a tribute to Mr Place in keeping with another of his nicknames.

Mr Robinson said: “My father was also known as the Praying Gombey — and I will stick to that tradition.”

After prayers, drums and whistles struck up the beat, and the procession of dancers, including children, headed out through the neighbourhood in celebration of Mr Place’s legacy.

He was an easily recognised figure at performances almost to the end of his life, and Mr Place’s skills in dancing and drumming were witnessed by international audiences in the United States, Jamaica and Colombia.

Mr Place’s father, Reginald, also known as “Scranny”, was the group’s founder and captain.

“Sparky” was recruited with his brothers, Dennis and Reginald Jr, and succeeded Dennis Place as captain in the late 1970s.

Mr Place was among Gombeys honoured at the 2018 International Gombey Festival, when he was hailed as an “undisputed master”.

He was known as a disciplined leader and credited for saying: “I believed that children had to be of good deportment at home and at school — and if they were not, they could not dance.”

A statement from the Bermuda Government acknowledged Mr Place’s “immeasurable” influence on Bermuda's cultural heritage.

Owen Darrell, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, said: "The passing of Leon ‘Sparky’ Place is a profound loss for Bermuda’s cultural landscape.

“His dedication to preserving and innovating the Gombey tradition has left an indelible mark on our heritage.

“I have had the opportunity to speak with members of the Place’s Gombey family, who shared fond memories of Sparky and his passion for our culture.”

He added: “Sparky’s commitment to his craft, coupled with his faith and creative vision, has inspired countless individuals and enriched our Bermudian culture."

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Published March 05, 2024 at 12:47 pm (Updated March 05, 2024 at 12:47 pm)

Community tribute to Gombey master Leon ‘Sparky’ Place

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