Tambú, theatre on Caribbean slavery history

This video from the Netherlands is called Trailer: Tambú, a Freedom Song. This is a musical theatre play. It is coöperation by Het Volksoperahuis from the Netherlands, Teatro Luna Blou from Curaçao, and Curaçao singer Izaline Calister.

A tambú is a drum, which plays a role in Curaçao music. These drums connected the Caribbean slaves to the culture of their African homeland. In the local Papiamentu language, the word tambú can mean more than just a drum: it may mean a certain style of music; a style of dance; or a meeting of slaves in the days of slavery.

On 16 October, in Leiden, the Netherlands, there was a try-out performance of this play Tambú, a Freedom Song, for the tour this autumn. Before that, it had already been performed on Curaçao, and on Terschelling island.

This video is about a bit of music from the play.

The play has musicians on stage: on tambú drum, guitar, steel pan. Also female singers, and dance group Untold Empowerment. The performance is in both Papiamentu and Dutch languages.

This video is about a performance of the play.

There are both similarities and differences in this play with two recent films: Tula, the revolt; and Hoe duur was de suiker.

Tula, the revolt is about the 1795 Curaçao slave revolt. The play also starts with a scene including Tula, then a slave revolt leader. He asks a white Roman Catholic missionary priest to give him back his tambú drum. Without the tambú, there is no freedom. The priest refuses, as, he says, the tambú is linked to pagan African religion; so “to Satan”.  Then, Tula says:”If you won’t give it back, then I will take it”. Contrary to the film, after the beginning, the rest of the play is about the twenty-first century.

The play is about Curaçao; the film Hoe duur was de suiker about Suriname. Both were Dutch slave colonies. Suriname was mainly a sugar plantation colony. Curaçao plantations were economically less important for rich Dutch people. On Curaçao, re-selling slaves  to elsewhere in the Americas was important.

The film is about two half sisters. The play is about two half brothers. Johnny Martina, who has lived on Curaçao all of his life. And Lorenzo Martina, who used to live in the Netherlands for most of his life. Lorenzo Martina is a marathon runner who hopes to participate in the next Olympics. Maybe, the family name is an allusion to a real athlete called Martina: Churandy Martina, who did participate in the Olympics; first, for the Netherlands Antilles, later for the Netherlands. Churandy Martina, however, is not a long distance runner, but a sprinter.

After the death of their father,  Lorenzo Martina goes to Curaçao. His brother Johnny says he should compete at the Olympics for his native island, not for the Netherlands. The two brothers decide to sell their father’s old, eighteenth century,  tambú to the Curaçao historical museum. Lorenzo does so, because he does not understand the value of the tambú. Johnny does understand, but needs money badly.

Selling an heirloom tambú traditionally is supposed to bring bad luck. And the brothers get plenty of that. Lorenzo gets a mysterious disease, making him stop training for the Olympics as he has to be in a hospital bed. Johnny loses his job at the Curaçao historical museum and his marriage falls apart.

Johnny finally decides things cannot go on like this. He goes to the Dutch director of the Curaçao historical museum. Like Tula in the opening scene, he asks to get the tambú back. Are you so superstitious that you think that would help Lorenzo? the director asks cynically. Johnny replies: Then, why do you believe that Jesus cured sick people, as the Bible describes? That has nothing to do with the tambú, the director says angrily. He “doth protest too much“, as Shakespeare wrote; touché! Like Tula in 1795 to the priest, Johnny now tells the director: If you won’t give back my tambú, then I will come to get it.

The museum director is not named in the play. The real Curaçao museum is property of Dutch millionaire Jacob Gelt Dekker. Gelt in Dutch sounds similar to geld=money. In the play, the director treats his Curaçao employees in an arrogant way.  The play suggests that though slavery may be gone now, capitalist wage slavery is not.

Johnny becomes a “burglar”; “stealing” his tambú back from the  museum. Then, his brother Lorenzo recovers from his illness. He wins the Olympic gold medal. Johnny dies, giving the tambú to his half-brother as his last will. Then, singers and dancers and musicians welcome Lorenzo.

At the end, pupils of Adalbert College secondary school joined the players on stage to dance to the music; while the audience applauded enthusiastically.

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a triumph – of style over substance, says JEFF SAWTELL: here.

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12 thoughts on “Tambú, theatre on Caribbean slavery history

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