Bermuda’s cultural ambassadors are the gombeys, a name meaning “drums” given to African-inspired dance troupes adorned in elaborate outfits featuring feathers, beads, and sequins. Like tribal break-dancers in kaleidoscopic costumes, gombeys have long been adored by their Bermudian fans, but only in recent decades have they been officially recognized and even flown overseas by the government to represent the island at international events.
Gombeys derive from a grassroots tradition that borrows elements from Native American, British military, and Caribbean influences. Distinct family troupes evolved in the parishes over the centuries, and even today, gombey troupes consist of relatives and friends of specific families, and many include youngsters as young as two or three.
Their dance may appear to the uninitiated to be a free-for-all, but it is actually a structured art form with a beginning, middle, and end that dramatizes a popular Bible story or legend, such as that of David and Goliath. Gombey troupes used to appear mostly on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), attracting crowds as they walked through parish neighborhoods, but they now perform at many cultural festivals through the year, including the Wednesday Harbour Nights in Hamilton. Tradition holds that spectators toss coins of appreciation on the ground, which are later gathered by a designated gombey.
The iconic dance is coupled with ornate costumes, which are works of art in themselves. Peacock feathers, beads, and sequins are painstakingly used to construct each outfit, with a mask attached to a tall, feathered headdress, and gloves, scarf, and boots. Accessories include drums, ornamental bows and arrows, braids, and tomahawks. Typically the troupe’s captain uses a whip or whistle to orchestrate dance routines and storylines, keeping the other members in line.
Bermuda gombeys have performed at major events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, and on the island with visiting Native American groups who hold strong familial ties with Bermuda’s St. David’s Island community.