The Gombeys, the colorfully dressed masked dancers and drummers of Bermuda, represent a rich folklife tradition that reflects the tiny island’s wide-ranging roots—namely West African, British, Caribbean, and Native American.
Similar to Afro-Caribbean dances that evolved in the Bahamas and St. Kitts, Gombey was developed several centuries ago by Bermuda’s slave population to give artistic expression to the indignities they suffered at the hands of their owners. “We don’t have any language from the slaves who were here; we don’t have their arts,” says Bermuda historian Ruth Thomas. “We have very little about where we’ve come from, so thank goodness that we have the Gombey tradition.”
Historically, Gombey was disparaged by the island’s ruling class, who viewed the high-energy performances as a threat to the social order. As a consequence, Gombey troupes—members of which donned masks and full-coverage costumes to conceal their identities—were strictly controlled, allowed to dance only once a year or banned completely.
Fortunately, in recent decades, the Gombey troupes and their irresistibly pulsating street performances (gombey means “rhythm” in Bantu) have come to be regarded as a cherished tradition, as well as high art, on the island. “[Locals now] feel this is a Bermudian thing…part of our culture, and they want to be [involved],” Thomas says.
To experience the Gombeys in person, time your visit to Bermuda around the Christmas and New Year season, the Gombey Festival traditionally held in September or October, or Bermuda Day, an annual celebration that takes place on May 24 and marks the start of the summer season.
And though these are the best times to see one of the island’s troupes—each with its own unique style, passed down through generations within families—wend its way through Bermuda’s charming narrow streets, visitors can catch a regular weekly performance in the capital city of Hamilton year-round.
Bob Krist, contributing photographer for National Geographic Traveler, is an award-winning freelance photographer who works regularly on assignment for magazines such as Traveler, Smithsonian, and Islands.