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Veteran Gombey to be honoured at festival

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Tyrone Nesbitt(Photograph by Nadia Hall)

Tradition is important to Tyrone Alexander “Funk” Nesbitt.

It’s an affirmation that’s in contrast to his character — this veteran Gombey dances to the beat of his own drum.

“I was always the Gombey way out in front like a wild Indian,” said Mr Nesbitt, who will be honoured at the annual Gombey Festival today.

Rather than a will to stray, it was a bid to lead — to keep the pace, he said. “It came to a point that they were holding up the parade. We were supposed to be right behind a float and they were about 10 or 15 feet from the float.

His love for the culture began with the beat. Mr Nesbitt became a Gombey when he was 10, after years of following Place’s Gombeys with his friend Leon Place and cousin David Saunders.

“I was dancing from there on,” the 66-year-old said.

“One day the drummers weren’t there, so Mr [John] Pickles Spence told me to put on the drum and play.

“It encouraged me. As the years went by, I improved, improved, improved. It wasn’t something that I was taught — I listened and I learnt.”

He has witnessed many changes over the years, noting that the Calypso influence of the early days is making way for a fast-paced soca beat.

“The music is different now. Our beat was slower because the way they played the bass drum was much slower.”

He said that, while the soca beat stands out much in the same way as the gombey beat, they were culturally driven in the past, a relevance he worries will be lost.

“When you look at a lot of other cultures, they hold on for years. Why is ours changing? When you make that change, it will be lost,” he said.

“We’re all connected to the islands and their beats, but this is our culture. What I’ve learnt has been going on for years, so we try to teach them the old way.”

“Back in the day, when we went out, this whole street would be filled with people,” he added.

“It’s a spiritual type beat that gets in you. And you feel it.

“We went through hard times back in the day, but the Gombeys lifted up a lot of people’s spirits.”

He said the change isn’t only evident in the sound, but in the costumes, the masks and the new dances.

An accomplished artist and artisan, Mr Nesbitt has made a name for himself creating vibrant costumes with significant meaning.

“I was about 20 years old when I made my first costume,” he said.

“I met a young lady and she showed me how to do the embroidery. Everything else was history. It just went from there. Back in the day they used to use embroidery thread, but I used wool to make everything look uniform and eventually I got recognised.”

The artist was no stranger to design. His paintings and abstracts hang around his Court Street apartment. His love for Bermuda’s heritage can be seen in his brightly-hued designs.

Embellished with Bermudian and African symbolism, he colourful moon gates, wisdom knots, flags and local flowers that adorn his capes each carry their own meaning. His masks have his signature fish scales and he still uniquely uses wool instead of embroidery thread.

“They’re just ideas that come to mind, from wanting to make something different,” he said, adding that it is important for costumes to contain symbolism and meaning.

A skilled carpenter too, he makes bows from spice trees and hatchets created in a traditional fashion using four separate pieces.

After a two-year hiatus in the 1990s, Mr Nesbitt create his own group, H & N Gombeys, which stood for Hendrickson and Nesbitt. That group is now known as H & H Gombeys.

He occasionally performs with and assists Warner’s Gombeys with Alan Warner, last year’s honouree.

When asked to share his hopes for future Gombeys, he said: “I don’t know where they’re going to but I hope they do their best.

“All I can say is that if Gombeys stick to tradition, it will go further. Some people try to exploit the culture, but it is important for us to remember the roots of where it comes from and to be an ambassador to Bermuda when performing. It is about community.”

Tyrone Nesbitt(Photograph by Nadia Hall)