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Tambú: Curaçao's African-Caribbean Ritual and the Politics of Memory

Tambú: Curaçao's African-Caribbean Ritual and the Politics of Memory

by Nanette de de Jong

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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


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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Indiana University Press
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Ethnomusicology Multimedia
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Curacao's African-Caribbean ritual and the politics of memory

By Nanette de Jong

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Nanette de Jong
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00572-4


The Story of Our Ancestors, the Story of Africa

E Kuenta di Nos Antepasados, e Kuenta di Afrika

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


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.

According to Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, the multiplicity of African cultures "reach[ing] the New World did not compose, at [that] moment, groups" (1992: 10). Rather, the experience of slavery united the Africans, however diverse their backgrounds and cultures, compelling them to conform to the standards and expectations of the dominant white society. Although slavery eventually ended, emancipation failed to bring assimilation into the dominant culture, which was still unwilling to embrace blacks as equals. Emancipation, when it came, merely had the effect of cooling the New World "melting pot," and new cultural identities began to congeal. In the end, creolization enabled diverse African peoples to mediate differences within a new collective construct, and to redefine a cultural presence in the New World (Khan 2004: 4).

Montamentu, the religion for which Tambú served as accompaniment, decrees a modern cultural foothold based on abstract perceived Africanness, a hybrid adaptation of remembered African origins marked by their adaptation to the New World experience. Its emergence indicated the formation of a common identity and collective memory among the Afro- Curaçaoan people. To study Montamentu, then, is to examine one of the earliest examples of Afro- Curaçaoan collective memory. Its study reveals a dendrochronology—a history articulated in layered chapters. Just as cross sections of an ancient tree reveal secrets of climatology and other life circumstances to those able to interpret what they see, so too does the cultural stratum of Montamentu reveal to ethnologists the changing historical contexts of its growth and survival. Because creolization is bound to political and social stakes and meanings, unraveling its threads within Montamentu uncovers hidden complexities distinct to Curaçao's unique cultural encounters. Today's historians confront in Montamentu (and creolization in general) that which Trouillot calls the "ultimate challenge [of uncovering cultural] roots" (1995: xix).

Of the total 500,000 or so Africans who passed through Curaçao during the slave years, only some 2,300 were to remain permanently on the island. As previously stated, this created on Curacao two distinct slave communities: the negotie slaven, which was in a constant state of flux; and the other, the manquerons, which, much smaller in number, was static. The continuing turnover and growing diversity of the negotie slaven brought fresh supplies of African traditions to the island. Manquerons, forced to remain on Curaçao, were generally pressed into service as common laborers (Postma 1975: 237; Goslinga 1971: 362). As may be surmised, they came to connect with the dominant Dutch on an ongoing personal basis. Servants gained closest access to Dutch culture, often quartered within the landhuis ("plantation house") located on the grounds of estates they served, but every level of interaction and cultural exchange took place (Hartog 1961: 173). On the other hand, outside of marketing negotie slaven to other island plantations, Curaçaoan slavers maintained very little close contact with the negotie slaven. They were imprisoned as they were within the confines of Curaçao's two large detention camps—both located far from the homes of the Dutch; and, during their stay on Curaçao, their care fell to the island's lowest manqueron servants. Neither black subgroup represented to the Dutch a separate entity (Postma 1975: 271). The exchange of ideas between the negotie slaven and the manquerons produced a number of cultural by-products, including the Afro-syncretized religion, Montamentu. Because Dutch interests were largely focused on trade and profits, the goal of Christian proselytizing (which motivated other European colonialists) was not a high priority, and Montamentu, when it did evolve, was met with little interference from the island's dominant culture.

Africans taken into slavery through the Dutch West Indische Compaigne came predominantly from two geographical regions: the Angolan coast (roughly the area between Cameroon and the Congo River) and the region of West Africa. While the cultural foundation of Montamentu may be traced to these two African regions, sleuthing out the specific Old World antecedents presents a Gordian knot unlikely to be fully disentangled. Records, where they exist, tend to offer inconclusive evidence of slave origins, and often concentrate (nearly exclusively) on the Africans captured in the western coastal regions. While it is likely much will never be fully understood, modern research continues to pursue the challenge. Employing nontraditional means of deciphering the evidence becomes not just a possible option, but a real necessity.

The examination of ship logs kept by Dutch slavers yields cargo descriptions and lists from which theories of possible African derivations can be construed. It should be borne in mind, however, that such cargo descriptions were recorded not so much to document the nationalities and cultural backgrounds of African people as they were to inscribe inventory of trade. Lorna McDaniel shows that one practical reason for recording the national backgrounds of slave cargoes in the logs of ships was to better manage prisoners during the Middle Passage. Since certain African nations were involved in ongoing wars with other nations, separating these battling culture groups during the long journey was essential (McDaniel 1998: 36).

Because the ship logs emerged for reasons of trade, no standard classification system was developed, or even encouraged. As a result, misspellings and spelling modifications frequently occurred in the logs. Decoding these flaws represents a constant challenge to anyone attempting to use them as historical references. Often the African port of exit was used as a nation name. As occurred, Africans were captured in one area of Africa and then sold in another. These Africans usually were logged into the ship documents by the name of the African port of exit, rather than their actual nation of origin. Cape Lahou (also written as Cape LaHou) is one such example. Located on the mouth of the Ivory Coast, Cape Lahou became a terminology used for nation distinction (Curtin 1969: 185–186). Similarly, the trading station of Kromatine (also spelled Cromanti, Kormantine, and Cormantine) in Ghana was employed for identification purposes. Frequently, the language of a culture group became used as national title. Mallais (also written as Malais and Malé) was the language spoken by the Ewe-Fon people of Dahomey, yet during slavery Mallais evolved into a title used by slave captains to distinguish nationality (Wooding 1981: 21–23). Furthermore, ship's logs were rarely adjusted to reflect the innumerable prisoners who, having perished at sea, were unceremoniously tossed overboard (Curtin 1969; McDaniel 1998; Goslinga 1971). Although slave ship logs are a good starting point in the search for African origins in the Americas, they remain problematic, demanding constant review.

It must also be noted that slaves of certain African nationalities were perceived to be superior to others, and therefore might be expected to command top prices in the marketplace. Adding particularly to the confusion today is the fact that unprincipled proprietors are known to have deliberately misassigned national origins in order to capitalize on the higher prices. Dutch historian Jan Jacob Hartsinck speaks to this phenomenon in Beschrijving van Guiana of de Wilde Kust, in Zuid-Amerika (1770). Hartsinck gives this example of how some Dutch notoriously misrepresented the national background of incoming Africans: "The best slaves in the land [according to popular preference] have scratches on their foreheads" (referring to culture-specific decorative scarring). Hartsinck reports that some slavers were not above inflicting similar physical markings upon African slaves of other nationalities, hoping to fool purchasers into paying higher prices for their slaves. In the words of Hartsinck:

We hope that our readers will not be displeased, especially those who are interested, if we give some descriptions of various kinds concerning the nature and marks [tokens, signs] of these people that distinguish them from each other; but one must be careful, however, because black slave-dealers may change these marks to their advantage and in that manner [transform] the poorer kind of Negroes [into something better than what they really are]. (Hartsinck 1770: 918)

European participation in the African slave trade began with the Portuguese, whose interest expanded geometrically when it colonized immense Brazil, literally encompassing half a continent (Alden 1973; Boxer 1969). African slave labor comprised virtually the entirety of the Brazilian plantation workforce, making Brazil the leading importer of African slaves in the New World (Rawley 1981: 40–41). The bulk of the slave workforce came from Angola, and Philip Curtin estimates Angolans represented over 70 percent of Brazil's entire slave population (Curtin 1969). When Portugal found itself drawn into internal conflicts with Spain, its overseas territory became a secondary concern—and easy prey for outside takeovers. The Netherlands (known during the slave years as the United Provinces or Dutch Republic) was the major beneficiary of the weakened empire. The largest Dutch acquisition, comprising most of northeastern Brazil, was rechristened New Holland, and became the first Dutch plantation colony. Administration of the Dutch Republic's New World possessions was left to the West Indische Compaigne, chartered in 1621 (Boxer 1957: 27; Emmer 1981: 71–72; Postma 1990a: 15).

The WIC soon realized that New Holland's sugar-based plantation economy stood in need of an increasingly large workforce. "It is not possible to accomplish anything in Brazil without slaves," were the words of New Holland's first acting governor (Boxer 1957: 83). Unable to entice enough mainland Dutch to relocate to New Holland, the WIC had little choice but to persuade farmers who served under Portuguese rule to remain. Those farmers who agreed to stay during the Dutch occupation made the provisional request that an Angolan slave workforce be maintained—they were already accustomed to working with Angolan laborers, and had no interest in dealing with any other African culture group. In an effort to meet the demands, the WIC fought to expand its African holdings to include Angola. Within a few short decades, the Dutch Republic successfully drove the Portuguese from the African coastal trading stations of Luanda and Benguela, as well as the islands of São Thomé and Annabon, before eventually capturing Portugal's last remaining coastal station of Axim. Under Dutch rule, the exportation of Angolan slaves was stepped up. The WIC, which had virtually ignored Curaçao prior to its acquisition of New Holland, now looked to transform the island into a slave detention facility, where Africans could be brought before being shipped elsewhere. An estimated fifteen thousand Angolans passed through Luanda alone during Dutch occupation, with most channeled through Curaçao before heading to New Holland (Barlaeus 1647: 206–207; Boxer 1957: 106–108; Postma 1975: 26). The Angolan influence, therefore, manifested itself early on Curaçao, and has remained there—as evidenced by the presence of several cultural indicators.

The origin of Tambú has become associated with the arrival of the Angolans, primarily through the research of historian Luis Arturo Dominguez, who has traced Tambú's roots to a larger Angolan tradition of stick fighting (1988). As he explained it, Tambú derived from an acrobatic sparring ritual used during times of war in Angola. Part of a collection of sanga (or "war dances"), Tambú tested and rehearsed the skills of hand-to-hand combat and stick weaponry (Tavares 1984). It signified "an instrument of organization of the physical, individual, and community defense (weapon)" (Thornton 1988: 362), with "the ability to twist, leap, and dodge to avoid arrows or the blows of opponents" considered central (ibid.).

Stick fighting assumed different styles in the Caribbean, with participants' ethnic backgrounds and training guiding the individual transformations. In Trinidad, the stick fight kalenda (sometimes referred to as bamboula) emerged, testing agility and dexterity to the accompaniment of drums and chants (Liverpool 2001). In Bahia, Brazil, the stick dance maculelê surfaced, with the grimas (fighting sticks) serving also as musical instruments, providing the rhythmic accompaniment to wielders' acrobatic moves. The Curaçaoan version is called kokomakaku, its name taken from the island shrub coco maque, from whose trunks the combat fighting sticks were traditionally constructed (Brenneker 1975). Kokomakaku was a "game of skills," explains Brenneker and Juliana (Brenneker 1975, 1971; Juliana 1983, 1990). Two contestants sparred within a ring of spectators, sticks in hand, dancing and jumping to the rhythms of a single drum, known as tambú. The drummer would play a standard rhythmic pattern (transcribed in fig. 1.1), establishing the basic beat and pace of the game. Improvised slaps and hits, meant to guide the movements of dancers, would be added to this rhythmic pattern at the discretion of the drummer.

Kokomakaku sticks could be outfitted with thin straps of woven leather shaped into a loop (called ganchorof). By slipping the hand through this loop, contestants gained more control over the kokomakaku, and avoided having the stick slip from their grasp. The objective was to hit the opponent on the head with the kokomakaku stick hard enough to draw blood. The first contestant to do so was named winner by the bystanders. Competitions often arose between the different manqueron slave nation groups, and, under those conditions, competitions could become fierce. Winning was a source of pride, and winners gained immediate celebrity status among their communities, who boasted of their champions as "practically invincible" in local hype leading up to competitions, revering winners with "the honorable name of 'stick priest' " (Rosalia 1994). But while these aggressive competitions presented a definite test of athletic ability, in the end, a cunning wit and talent for deception still remained the ultimate weapon required to defeat an opponent.


Excerpted from Tambú by Nanette de Jong. Copyright © 2012 Nanette de Jong. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nanette de Jong is Senior Lecturer at the International Centre for Music Studies, Newcastle University.

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