Despite new pop forms, Bermuda is proud of its original musical idioms. Gombey dancing is the island's premier folk art. Gombey (commonly pronounced goom-bee or gom-bay) combines West Africa's tribal heritage with the Native American and British colonial influences of the New World. African Caribbeans brought to Bermuda as slaves or convicts introduced the tradition, and its rhythms are similar to Brazilian street samba. Gombey dancers are almost always male; in accordance with tradition, men pass on the rhythms and dance techniques from generation to generation in their family. Dancers outfit themselves in masquerade costumes, whose outlandish lines and glittering colors evoke the brilliant plumage of tropical birds.
Gombey (spelled goombay in some other places, such as The Bahamas) signifies a specific type of African drum, as well as the Bantu word for "rhythm." These rhythms escalate into an ever faster and more hypnotic beat as the movements of the dancers become increasingly uninhibited, and the response of the spectators grows ever more fervent. The most strenuous dances are usually performed during the Christmas season.
Although gombey dancing, with its local rituals and ceremonies, can be seen as one of Bermuda's major cultural contributions, it's not unique to the island. Variations are found elsewhere in the western Atlantic, as well as in the Caribbean. Indeed, during its development, Bermuda's gombey dancing was significantly influenced by some of these other versions. In colonial times, for example, when African Caribbeans were brought to Bermuda as slaves or convicts to help build the British military installations on the island, they carried with them their own gombey traditions, which eventually combined with those that had already taken root in Bermuda. What's unique about the Bermudian version of gombey, however, is its use of the British snare drum, played with wooden sticks, as an accompaniment to the dancing.
A handful of gombey recordings are available, enabling you to hear the sounds of this African-based music, with its rhythmic chanting and rapid drumbeat. Among the recordings, the album Strictly Gombey Music (Edmar 1165), performed by four members of the Pickles Spencer Gombey Group, offers a good selection of gombey dances.
Aficionados of this art form, however, will argue that gombey's allure lies not so much in the music as in the feverish -- almost trancelike -- dancing that accompanies it, as well as in the colorful costumes of the dancers. For that reason, they say, audio recordings can't convey the full mesmerizing power of a gombey dance the way a visual recording can. So, while you're in Bermuda, consider filming a gombey dance to show when you get back home.
Regrettably, there's no one place in Bermuda where you can always see gombey. Your best bet is to inquire at your hotel to see what events and performances might be staged during your visit. Sometimes hotels present gombey shows, but they don't follow a fixed schedule.
The Balladeer Tradition
Bermuda also has a strong balladeer tradition. Although its exponents are fewer than they used to be, local balladeers continue to enjoy considerable popularity among islanders and visitors alike. A wry, self-deprecating humor has always distinguished their compositions, and balladeers can strum a song for any occasion on their guitars. Today, many of their songs have to do with Bermuda's changing way of life.
By virtually everyone's estimate, the musical patriarch of Bermuda was Hubert Smith, who was the island's official greeter in song. A balladeer of formidable talent and originality, Smith composed and performed songs for the visits of nearly all the foreign heads of state who graced Bermuda's shores in recent memory. His performances for members of the British royal family included one of the most famous songs ever written about the island: Bermuda Is Another World. The song is now the island's unofficial national anthem.
Other top artists
In the last 2 decades, Bermuda saw the rise of many other recording artists. A five-man calypso band, The Bermuda Strollers, with their lively rhythms, can be heard on their album The Best of (Edmar 20G6), and also in a collection of musical odes to the island's natural beauty, South Shore Bermuda (Edmar 1156). Another balladeer and comic of great talent is Gene Steede. His popular album is called South Shore Bermuda (Edmar 2003). A challenger is Jay Fox, known for his songs of love, joy, and sorrow, all heard in the album Island Paradise (Jay Fox 1601).
Bermuda ballads, songs of love, and calypsos are also performed by Stan Seymour, a popular soloist who has been compared to Harry Belafonte.
The lively calypsos of Trinidad and the pulsating rhythms of Jamaica have also influenced musical tastes in Bermuda. Youth Creation, a dreadlock-sporting local reggae group, adopts the Rastafarian style in Ja's on Our Side (Edmar 2002).
For those who find that nothing quite stirs the blood as well as good old-fashioned oom-pah-pah, there are the live as well as recorded performances of the Bermuda Regiment, whose bagpipes, trumpets, and drum tattoos evoke the finest British military traditions -- and must strike a nostalgic chord or two in many a British or Bermudian listener. The regiment's album Drummers Call Bermuda (Edmar 1152) is a perennial favorite.
The late Lance Hayward was a Bermuda-born musician who established his musical reputation far from home. His most appreciative audiences were found in the smoke-filled jazz houses of New York's Greenwich Village. With a musical style that has been compared to the soft jazz of George Shearing, his most popular album is Killing Me Softly (Island 90683).
A Bermuda-born trio, Steel Groove, became known for performing only instrumentals in the Trinidadian style. Their trademark adaptations used the calypso-derived steel pan combined with a keyboard, an electric guitar, and often a bass guitar. Their most popular album became Calypso Hits. An even earlier Calypso group, Esso Steel Band, also became widely known island-wide with the release of their albums, The Esso Steel Band (Sunshine 1003) and It's a Beautiful World.
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