Curacao’s Tumba Festival: Music with a Message

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring;
renewed shall be blade that was broken,
the crownless again shall be king.

~J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892-1973

Curacao, southern Caribbean

Curacao, southern Caribbean

Curacao’s Tumba Festival reminded me of how good it feels to really relish being alive.

Many travel to the Caribbean to rejuvenate by lying inert on their backs on the beach. My psyche was renewed with a different approach—heart-pumping, hip-swaying, arm-waving, smile-until-your-cheeks-hurt Tumba.

In late January, I joined a massive throng at the Curacao Festival Center to cheer on the contenders for the title of Tumba King. While the songs are sung in Papiamentu, the language of the “ABC Islands” of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, and the lyrics often deal with local topical events, I needed no translation for the feel-good flavor of this annual event.

Everything about the occasion exuded an aura of celebration—the vibrant colors of people’s clothes, the exhilarating upbeat tempo of the percussion and horns at top decibels, the energetic dancing onstage and off. In no time at all, my brow was glistening and my spirit was surging from the joyful exertion inspired by the sounds of Tumba.

The next evening, I attended the Tumba festival awards ceremony, where I had the chance to talk with several Curacao natives with deep ties to Tumba.

Kenneth Vinck has been covering the Tumba festival for local radio stations for the last 30 years. He gave me an overview of Tumba’s history.

“In order to understand the Tumba Festival it is good to tell something about how the music evolved, Kenneth said. “It began out of Africa. Our history has a whole lot to do with Africa because Curaçao was the center of the distribution of slaves coming out of Africa. The Dutch, the Englishmen, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, they all came with their ships to Curacao and from here on slaves were distributed to Cuba, to Jamaica, to Haiti, to the other islands in the Caribbean. Slaves also stayed here because many merchants kept people to work for them here.”

Kenneth explained that the slaves brought their own culture and music and it evolved.

“It is really African but through the years, as most other types of genres of music, it evolved and became very popular,” he explained. “Back in the time of the slaves, the merchant slave owners did not allow the slaves to produce their own music. They were not allowed to do anything with their own culture because the slave owners couldn’t understand it so they were afraid the slaves were planning something against them.”

Kenneth told me that the slaves composed songs about things that happened through the year and sang about working in the fields for the slave owners. Tambú was one kind of music the slaves made and Tumba came out of the Tambú.

“The difference between Tambú and Tumba is the way that they are played,” he said. “Tambú is played purely acoustically and depends on the African background with a whole lot of percussion. The percussion is very, very important because again, back in those days the slaves had no other instruments. The only instruments are the hoe (in Papiamentu it’s called Chapi) and the drum which was handmade by the slaves.”

“Through the years Tumba has evolved, with influences of Latin and jazz music,” he continued. “Especially the arrangements have a jazzy touch. There is also the Seú, you pronounce it as ‘say who.’ Seú was music for the harvest time and they used the horn of the bull to make certain sounds. It was very primitive, but it evolved through the years.”

“But let’s go back to the Tumba and the festival,” Kenneth said. “The first Tumba Festival took place in 1971. Previously, Carnival was celebrated on Curaçao but it had a whole other music made with steel pans. The steel pan is in fact not ours, it is something really from other parts of the Caribbean, especially Trinidad. People from other Caribbean islands were working here with the refinery, so they had brought the steel pan to Curacao, so it became part of our culture. The Minister of Culture decided we have to go with our own music and not celebrate Carnival anymore with imported music. We have our own rhythms right? Let’s create a new Carnival with our own rhythms.”

“So then the decision came that the Tumba would serve as the road march,” he explained. “The winning song of the Tumba Festival is the road march. This is the official song for the Carnival season and for the Carnival parades. Carnival is a festive season which occurs immediately before Lent; the main events are usually during February. Carnival typically involves a public celebration and parade. Carnival groups dress up differently, combining some elements of a circus or other fantasy. Groups dance along a route of 7 kilometers. The last day of the celebration is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Carnival is traditionally held in areas with a large Catholic population.”

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