Curacao’s Tumba Festival: Music with a Message
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.”
Kenneth said that in 1971, the responsibility of organizing the first Tumba Festival was delegated it to the Association of the Musician and the Artist, known as Asosiashon di músiko i artista. The association is like a union, designed to protect the rights of the musicians, who in those days were primarily playing in the hotels for the tourists.
“The Tumba Festival is four nights, Kenneth said. “It’s a huge event, attended each night by around eight to ten thousand people. The best thirty songs perform in the finals on Friday. People have their favorite singer, they have their favorite composer and they have their favorite band. One thing is for sure; everybody come to the finals on Friday–the place is jammed, the place is rocking.”
Kenneth explained that there is a jury that judges each song. The jury consists of specialists, professionals are knowledgeable about composing, lyrics, arrangements. The jury is divided within three sections, with judges for lyrics, melody and arrangements. There is also a section that judges how people respond to the songs, called the ambiance, how a particular song is felt by the attendees. The sections are combined with one score and the song with the most points is the winner.
There are twelve judges, four for each section, with the most points going to the lyrics and melody. Kenneth pointed out it is not festival for singers or interpreters or dance–it is a festival for the composition. Therefore that part gets twelve hundred and fifty points. The arrangement gets up to five hundred points and the ambiance gets up to one hundred points. That total is the final score of Tumba. The best twelve Tumbas are recorded every year and the association brings out a CD.
Kenneth told me that Papiamentu is a Creole language derived from African languages and either Portuguese or Spanish, with some influences from Amerindian languages, English, and Dutch. Papiamentu is the most widely-spoken language on the Caribbean ABC islands, having official status on the islands of Aruba and Curaçao. The language is also recognized on Bonaire by the Dutch government.
“We have a saying in Papiamento, ‘We are not cockroaches,’ Kenneth said. “A cockroach doesn’t have blood in its veins; we have blood in our veins so that means we have feeling. When a singer performs a song, it touches the jury; they have blood in their veins. They are not cockroaches. There might be a Tumba song which does not receive a prize from the jury but the public likes so much, and dances to it so much, that Tumba will get the popular prize.”
Kenneth introduced me to his godson, Djuric “Dju Dju Vi” Virginie, moments after Djuric received the Tumba King crown onstage. Djuric, 28, beamed as a posse of photographers surrounded him, flashes illuminating the night sky. A humble king, he seemed in awe of the recognition.
“I have been involved in Tumba for about ten years,” Djuric said. “This is my first time as Tumba king. It was my greatest wish, so I am happy. The Tumba Festival is the biggest Dutch Caribbean festival of compositions and it is an honor to be on the top of this competition. I am proud of this achievement; I will be a role model for all our youngsters and it is an important responsibility for me. I want youngsters to realize that they can achieve their goals in life, as long as you keep on studying, work hard and believe in yourself.”
I asked Djuric about the duties of the Tumba king.
“I have a tight schedule,” he explained. “The Carnival period is very short and there are many of activities during all these coming days. As Tumba king I perform at foster homes, retirement homes, revalidation centers and other Care institutes. I also perform at jump ups and other Carnival parties. Some days I do 10 or more performances.
Djuric explained that Tumba is a family affair.
“My involvement in music came from my grandfather, my uncle, father, sister,” Djuric told me. “They all sing and play instruments so it is in our blood. I began to sing when I was thirteen years old. I was in the secondary school and I played the bass guitar and I could sing. All the children at school told me that I sing very well and they gave me confidence that I can do it.”
I asked him if he could tell me a little bit about the winning Tumba song.
“The song I sang is called “Tin wowo riba bo,” which means ‘There is an eye watching you,’” he said. “It is an easy composition. The fantasy within the song is marvelous and it speaks to everybody. We all see each other, there is God to see us. There is someone watching over you with love, with emotion, with sympathy, all positive advice. That was the message.”
In a conversation with another award-winner, I learned about how Tumba often also carried a socio-economic message.
“This year I won for the best lyrics for my Tumba, called “The Bore,” Renard Hurtado said. “It is about drilling oil. You see, in November, December and October we had elections and there was a lot of speculation about if we have oil; if studies had been made, if there were plans already made. So I said why are we talking so much? Let’s start the drilling.”
“We are very close to Venezuela,” he explained. “There is a good possibility there is oil in our soil so if we can get oil then we are saved from all the problems, at least the financial problems. So let’s start drilling so we know once and for all if we can pursue that dream or we have to stop and think about something else for our economic development in Curacao. That’s why I decided to make a Tumba about drilling oil. Of course I added some carnival taste to it and in the lyrics I address the drilling, and also the drill, the machine itself.”
“You see, because the Tumba Festival is one of the biggest culture festivals here, there is a lot of attention on what is presented,” Renard said. “So composers make use of this possibility to share their thoughts and address the public with their concerns. Sometimes there are political issues. Sometimes it is just to elevate the morals of the inhabitants of Curacao and also sometimes it is just a joke, like teasing. So there are different topics that are related to Tumba Festival mainly because it gets a lot of attention from the media. So if you bring something that is different, that is unique, you are sure that you will get a good spot in the local newspapers and the television news.”
“It is like being a social commentator because it is mostly current problems that influence the composers,” he said. “You can have one problem, then ten composers may attack it from different angles. Sometimes you get different topics but it is the same problem they are addressing more or less. When you think of debate usually there is a loser in the end or some sour taste, but here it is not like that; everybody leaves happy and inspired to have a good time during the carnival period.”
I asked Renard how he became involved in Tumba.
“I started in music when I was thirteen years old and in a high school band, almost forty years ago,” Renard recalled. “While I was going to university, my mother had a Carnival group. One year, two months before the Carnival parade, the band told us they couldn’t play for us anymore. I had some friends at the university and we decided to form a band and play for the Carnival. After the carnival we were invited to play in a nightclub in Curacao. So in 1983 we officially formed a band, called The Happy Peanuts. This year July it has been thirty years that we have been playing. So I have been performing almost every year since.”
Indeed, the high energy exuberance of the Tumba Festival was infectious and it was easy to see how it became a part of you. I was suddenly struck by the enormous significance of the revelers’ joyful spirit.
The day before, I had visited the Kura Hulanda Museum in Willemstad, which chronicles the history of slavery. The Museum documents not just Curacao’s history as one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean, but chronicles the trafficking of humans throughout the ages. Part of the installation described a specific role within plantation hierarchy, in which the person’s job was to break the spirit of the slaves.
I told Renard how powerful it was to witness at the Tumba Festival a collective spirit that had not only endured despite horrific repression but sang and danced with abandon.
Renard responded by telling me that person who job it was to subjugate slaves was known as “Bomba.” He said that at a Tumba Festival in the early 1980s, a song was performed called “Higaks.” The song’s name was meant to evoke the “whacking” sound of someone being hit.
“But in this song it was the people who were hitting the ‘Bomba,”Renard said. “So, now it was the other way around, everybody took aim at the ‘Bomba” figure. It had a jubilant effect on the audience because he didn’t exactly tell the moral side of the story but he presented it in Carnival way. That is Carnival–forget all the problems and have a good time. Enjoy life during the carnival days, because after Carnival, the partying is over.”
“In Carnival all of your problems are expressed and presented but at the end you celebrate because you are still here,” he explained. “Whatever happened in the past, that is the past. You are still alive and you have a future in front of you. Be eager to make things happen our own way now. We are alive now.”
Renard’s words had a special significance for me, coming at a time when I was just beginning to emerge from a dark period of grappling with my own past. Today, just a few weeks later, I can look back at Curacao’s Tumba Festival as a turning point for me. I now realize I can dance for joy not in spite of my painful passage but because I am emerging from it with a stronger spirit.