Gombey Captain Discusses Bermuda’s Most Traditional Dance

New Yorkers caught a glimpse of paradise last week at the Experience Bermuda event in Grand Central Terminal. With appearances by Bermudian Broadway stars, radio personalities, Miss Bermuda 2012, and the Minister of Tourism, the event showcased Bermuda’s most engaging and colourful characters.

Did we say colourful? Actually, we mean that quite literally. For no Bermuda experience would be complete without the thundering drums and energetic dance of the Gombeys, whose traditional folk style combines African, Native American, Caribbean, and British cultures into a performance that’s uniquely Bermudian — and uniquely unforgettable.

One of Bermuda’s most popular troupes, H&H Gombeys, was on hand in Manhattan to delight the audience with its colourful costumes, infectious drumming, and, of course, wildly entertaining moves. We spoke with Shawn Caisey, captain of H&H Gombeys, to learn more about this visually stunning Bermudian tradition.

How long have you been a Gombey? 

I’ve been performing for 32 years. I started in Pembroke with a Gombey group called Places. When I was young, I’d follow them until one day the captain asked if I would like to dance. I said sure. I’ve been doing it ever since. 

Briefly, what’s the history of Gombey? 

It goes back to slavery days and was used to depict the feelings against slave masters. They used to dress up in costumes to hide from their masters. Everything on the suit represents something.

What does your suit represent?    

The chains represent shackles. The mirror reflects evil spirits. The beads represent jewels, jams, and fortunes. Back in the day, we had red ribbons to represent the trails of our slave people and the blood left behind. But that’s changed with the times.

How are Gombey troupes organised? 

The Captain is the overseer and teaches everyone the history, the dance, and drumming. Then there are Chiefs, who help teach [Gombey] to kids. Then there is the Wild Indian, who’s the first person you’ll see.  He leads in a snake form along the road and carries a bow and arrow. Everyone after that is a Warrior.

What sort of drums do you use?    

We have bass drums made out of potato barrel and goatskin. In our group, we have four snares and one bass. We try to keep drummers as drummers, and dancers as dancers.

Tell us a bit about the Gombey training programme.    

We have classes twice a week. I teach history and dancing. Kids start learning as early as 3 and can put their first suit on at 5. The training is intense. Probably one and a half hours non-stop on a beach, or up in the hills. You need lots of flexibility and determination. You don’t stop unless the drummer stops.

What’s the longest you’ve danced?    

A whole day! From 9.30 in the morning to 10.30 at night.

That’s amazing. How long do you plan to continue dancing?    

As long as my body takes it.

Check out this video to see Shawn and H&H Gombeys in action. 

Thanks to Shawn for sharing his story. Have you seen Gombeys perform? Where is your favourite place to watch a Gombey performance? Tell us in the comment section below. 

Posted on 23 February, 2012 | Permalink

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