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Tambú

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As contemporary Tambú music and dance evolved on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, it intertwined sacred and secular, private and public cultural practices, and many traditions from Africa and the New World. As she explores the formal contours of Tambú, Nanette de Jong discovers its variegated history and uncovers its multiple and even contradictory origins. De Jong recounts the personal stories and experiences of Afro-Curaçaoans as they perform Tambu–some who complain of its violence and low-class attraction and others who champion Tambú as a powerful tool of collective memory as well as a way to imagine the future.

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1. The Story of Our Ancestors, the Story of Africa

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It is a process which involves the creation of entirely new culture patterns out of the fragmented pieces of historically separate systems.

—JAY EDWARDS

Creolization, the evolutionary development of Afro-Caribbean culture, began when conditions allowed distinct cultural memories to regain meaningfulness within a New World context. Through a process of negotiation, certain histories continued; others became inverted or disappeared altogether. In the end, creolization enabled diverse African cultures to mediate their differences within a new collective construct, legitimizing their cultural presence in the New World. Between layers of antecedents, the creole form exists at the intersection of numerous cultural processes: between social and individual experience, between cultural Selves and Others, between retained and discarded histories and identities, and between colonizers and colonized.

Diverse African nationals entered into a process of creolization, emerging finally as “hybrid societies … mosaics of borderlands where cultures jostled and converged in combinations and permutations of dizzying complexity” (Morgan 1997: 142). The history of creolization, then, traces the development of an alloy-culture from which much has been burned away. The mechanism for this process was set in motion quite inadvertently by white Europeans, whose ambitious economic vision for the New World squeezed maximum profitability out of minimum investment through unpaid slave labor. Toward this end, Africans of many cultural backgrounds, social statuses, and spiritual beliefs were captured and chained, transported within the holds of ships and forcibly relocated to the Caribbean, where they labored on the plantations or were resold elsewhere in the Americas.

 

2. Told through the Fierce Rhythms of the Drum

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Materials, including both the music itself, and the ritual complexes from which it is derived, represent the primary cultural documents within which crucial evidence may be encoded. —KAY SHELEMAY

The term Tambú is used today interchangeably to define the specific drum instrument, the dance, the song, and the occasion itself. Through the recent centuries, the sacred role of Tambú has been eclipsed by its secular role, where Tambú is tantamount to an oral newspaper, a medium for the documentation of local news and gossip and for its dissemination to the island’s distant corners. Whatever its function, sacred or secular, however, Tambú maintains the same performance practices.

Typically, Tambú is announced by a lead singer, called pregon, who calls people to the ceremony with a short, declamatory a capella introduction, called deklarashon introduktorio. This deklarashon introduktorio signals to the chorus (coro), accompanying musicians, and audience participants that a Tambú is about to commence. Its purpose also is to establish the tonal center for the music that will follow, to introduce the basic melodic and rhythmic motives of the upcoming song, and to specify, through text, the title or plot of the impending Tambú. The Tambú that follows may be said to reflect a binary form, consisting of two main sections: the habrí (“open”) and será (“closed”). Habrí is always heard first, and is always followed by the será section. Although the two sections can be repeated as often as the pregon desires, they are always presented as a pair—never singly, and never out of order. An optional coda with the pregon restating the Tambú title or plot provides finality.

 

3. The Laws Couldn’t Keep Tambú Away.

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Art should be recognized as a major and integral part of the transaction that engenders political behavior. —MURRAY EDELMAN

As already stated, during the early slavery years Tambú was allowed to evolve without much interference. Early Dutch interests were focused almost entirely on trade and profits, and the personal lives of manquerons were at first of little interest to the slaveholders. As the Jamaican governor of 1694 aptly observed in describing the Hollanders on Curaçao: “Jesus Christ is good, but trade is better” (Hamelberg 1694: 107). This helps to explain how Tambú managed to catch on quickly and spread rapidly among the manqueron community.

Among Tambú’s main purposes during slavery was its role as accompaniment to Montamentu, its rhythms and dances performed as vehicles for conjuring the arrival of ancestors and deities, many of whom found duplication (and triplication) on Curaçao. Montamentu’s propensity for duplicated gods stemmed in part from the religion’s unusual rules of possession. Unlike most other Afro-syncretized Caribbean rituals, Montamentu’s invocation of specific gods and spirits was not limited to performing the specific musical rhythms and dances unique to the individual entity. In Tambú, for example, while events could be performed in honor of a particular deity, “all deities [were] welcome.” According to one respected Tambú leader, “It is the spirit world that makes the decision [regarding] which deities will arrive. [The spirit world] is best qualified to make that decision” (Yuchi, personal communication, November 3, 1995). Which gods arrive, how many gods attend, how long the gods will stay —these are all decisions made at the discretion of the gods themselves.

 

4. Prepare for the Arrival of Our Ancestors

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To remember is to place a part of the past in the service of conceptions and needs of the present. —BARRY SCHWARTZ

Tambú, as we have seen, was born of the union between local meanings and elements acquired through “global flows”—the movement and interaction of culture. Tambú has continued to evolve via unique conjunctions of social, political, economic, and cultural change, with the religious Tambú emerging particularly remarkable in its ability to transform. Differences are not just tolerated in the religious Tambú; they are embraced and affirmed. Since its inception, it has recognized the cultural multiplicity in Curaçaoan society, and expressed the positive acknowledgment of that plurality. The binary structure of Tambú has been one key to its appeal: the habrí, offering an open-ended invitation, and the será, offering open communication with an appealing variety of deities. Its “open door” policy enables participants nearly limitless access to the supernatural.

 

5. Clap Your Hands!

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The past continues to speak to us. But it no longer addresses us as a simple, factual “past.” —STUART HALL

A friend recently returned from a visit to Curaçao, eager to share his experiences. He had attended a folkloric show at his hotel, a program advertised as a dedication to the island’s representative musical rhythms. Taped music filtered out onto the outdoor pool-turned-stage, with a lone musician, a young boy, playing the wiri as accompaniment. A troupe of three couples performed a variety of dances, “including the Tambú!” my friend enthusiastically added. His description, however, recalled a comical drama involving two men vying for the affections of a single woman. At best, it was loosely reminiscent of the kokomakaku stick dance. One of the men danced with the woman, while the other paced the sidelines. Following several futile attempts at cutting into the dance, he left the stage, coming back moments later with a small stick, which he flung wildly about. Now armed, he managed to break the dancing couple apart, a victory, however, that was short-lived. His adversary, having briefly left the stage, returned with his own stick. Back and forth, the scene continued, with the men leaving, one by one, and returning each time with larger and larger sticks. Finally, at the song’s end, the men both appeared with machetes. The parody brought the audience to laughter, yet the concierge assured my friend that this was “a common practice in Tambú.” The evening ended with a fire-eating performance, which, too, was passed off as Curaçao custom. My friend’s testimony introduces yet another type of modern Tambú: the folkloric, and brings up interesting complexities regarding the appropriation (and misappropriation) of culture.

 

6. Come for the Party

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These tales are all we have of our pasts, and so they are potent determinants of how we view ourselves and what we do.

—DAVID SCHACTER

Each year from November through December official sanctions against the secular Tambú temporarily relax. With radio stations filling air time with Tambú recordings, and parties enjoyed across the island without guest permits, the holidays have become unofficially known as “the Tambú Season.” Contemporary Tambú has become a commercial affair: modern Curaçaoan audiences comprise anyone with the money to purchase popular recordings, or those who eagerly await the latest seasonal hits to reach the airwaves. Sharing neither social nor cultural bonds, these listeners often lack understanding of the ritual’s traditional purposes. Nor are modern audiences bound to any reciprocal responsibilities: when Tambú Season draws to a close, they are free of further commitment for another year. The season is over and the ties that bind the Afro-Curaçaoan community together loosen, returning them to a globalized space in which their specificity is more distant, their shared memories less easy to recall, their sense of self more diffuse.

 

Conclusion: Are You Ready? Are You Ready to Hear the History of Tambú?

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No one can become what he cannot find in his memories.

—JEAN AMÉRY

Our discussion of the phenomenon known as Tambú, so immediately resistant to disclosure, has been developed in this book to reveal its manifold transformative abilities. Frequent changes in Curaçao’s economic environment, coupled with similar changes in the island’s philosophical and political climates, have shaped and informed Afro-cultural adjustments to the changing esteem in which the dominant society held the black community and worked to construe Tambú into a multiplicity of types: some with sacred overtones, others more secular in nature. While individually unique, each maintains a hold on tradition by incorporating similar conventional elements of musical rhythm, structure, instrumentation, and style.

Tambú constitutes part of a legacy in which Africans throughout the New World have engaged as a means of cultural survival appropriate to their environments. Rituals of great variety were created “that were at once new and immensely dynamic. African in overall tone and feeling, [yet] nonetheless wholly unlike any particular African society” (Price and Price 1999: 28).

 

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