The Tambu of Curacao: Historical Projections and the Ritual Map of Experience

Article excerpt

   Tuma boka i hende Tambu
   ["Tambu takes the mouth of the people"]

Afro-Curacaoan parable

Tambu is an African-inspired music and dance ritual that developed during slavery on the island of Curacao (largest of the Netherlands Antilles). (1) As a defined space for Afro-Curacaoan activity, Tambu has interconnected different cultural and ethnic groups, establishing varying senses of individual and collective belonging. Yet Tambu is not a melting pot of assorted traditions; the diverse cultural influences have not melded into one another. Rather, the varied cultural elements from Curacao's slave past have been integrated by layers within Tambu. To peel away those layers is to shake apart an intricate jigsaw puzzle into its individual pieces, each a separate, though interlocking, fraction of Afro-Curacao's complex colonial past. Yet, however fascinating these individual pieces may appear on their own, their true form and meaning become apparent only when considered within the context of the whole, namely Tambu itself.

Carved out of the constraints of a dominant colonial history, Tambu changed to accommodate Curacao's shifting social and cultural realities; yet, in its continued transformation, Tambu has served as a source of further change. From this perspective, the ritual upsets--in form and content--the linearity of the island's dominant history, in the end become a worthwhile tool for examining some of the complexities and social implications of Curacao's colonial past and present.

The ritual seems to dodge description. It intertwines the sacred and the secular, it follows both private and public cultural pathways, and it comprises a multifaceted repertoire of traditions, collectively evoking both Africa and the New World, able to recall imagined pasts while articulating perceived realities. As a result, Tambu permits divergent readings, placing it alongside other, often misunderstood, Black Atlantic performance traditions, including Rara from Haiti and Jankunu from Jamaica and the Bahamas. Like these cultural complexes, Tambu has appeared to dominant powers as a secular celebration, but, in fact, has served as a religious ceremony as well, using an African-inspired approach to performance. An analysis of Tambu provides a powerful opportunity to examine some of the ways Afro-Caribbean rituals may emerge between the sacred and secular, enabling participants with multiple and even overlapping senses of New World belonging.

This essay extends current research (de Jong 2007, 2008) by connecting contemporary Tambu to an analysis of Curacao's history. Central to this research has been a collection of interviews (taped and/or transcribed) stored in Curacao's Centraal Historisch Archief. This diverse interview collection comprises the work of several dedicated individuals, notably Elis Juliana, a writer and visual artist, Paul Brenneker, a Catholic priest, and Rene Rosalia, an anthropologist, currently serving as Curacao's Minister of Culture. With many of these interviews conducted during the early- and mid-twentieth century, some with former enslaved Afro-Curacaoans, this collection provides invaluable insights into Tambu's perceived evolution and transformation, and allows for the creation of a marked timeline.

Most important to this essay, however, has been my own field research, conducted over a period of thirteen years (1995-2008), in the course of which I attended numerous Tambu events. I gathered data from a variety of individuals ranging from ardent followers to impassioned opponents. Because Tambu participants may face social and religious retribution for their involvement, those who still dare participation do so only in great secrecy. Even those who acknowledge Tambu only as folklore remain skeptical or judgmental toward inquiries into the ritual. As a result, contacts between ethnologists and the Curacaoan people are neither quickly made nor easily maintained. …