Influences from around the world have been combined on Bonaire in a truly unique mixture, testifying to how successfully the people have been able to integrate their different ethnic Picture backgrounds. From Africa come the great festival dances of the Simadan and the Bari, with their polyphonic musicality and a whole range of percussive instruments.
The Waltz, the Mazurka, the Polka, and a dance known locally as the 'Baile di Sinta,' which is something of a fertility dance performed around a maypole-all originate in Europe, as does the hand organ. The Rumba, the Carioca, and the Merengue migrated to Bonaire from the northern islands of the Caribbean, while Latin America contributed the Danza and the Joropo. The United States provided its jazz rhythms.
The harsh living conditions on Bonaire during slavery fostered a tremendous resilience in the spirit of the people and produced -- paradoxically -- much of the extraordinary liveliness and richness of Bonairean culture. To divert themselves while they worked, slaves took to singing in their native African styles. Over time, these work songs, unloading songs, filling-in songs, Saturday songs, and hammock songs (for the long day's end), developed into ritual festivities, complete with percussion instruments, vocal polyphony, and dancing.
Of particular note is the dance known as the Bari, which is still performed during the harvest festival of the same name, during the Simadan festival, and in the period following New Year's (Mascarada). The Bari is led by a solo singer who, very much like a Calypsonian, improvises satirical lyrics based on recent events and local figures. The soloist is accompanied by the beat of the Bari, a small drum covered in sheepskin and played like bongos. The dance is performed in two different and quite distinct stages. The first features the men, who compete with each other for the attention of the women-once a violent clash, this part of the Bari is today a highly stylized contest. In the second stage, the successful competitors get to dance with their choice of partners, though the couples never touch. The Tumba is a dance very similar in origin but more precisely choreographed. Its two sets, each consisting of eight steps, are accompanied by drums, while a variety of other instruments offer a complex polyphonic tune in place of the Bari soloist's lyrical inventions.
Musicians in Bonaire proved unusually resourceful in their ability to create new instruments from the discarded fragments of broken tools. A small percussive instrument known as the Chapi is made from the metal end of a hoe and is struck with a small metal bar. The blade of a plough serves as a base for the Agan, and the Simadan uses a scooped-out calabash floating in a tub of water. The Benta is a mouth-held string instrument made with a bowed-out knife. These, along with the cowhorn and the conch, form the traditional musical repertory of Bonaire.
Here is a sample of the traditional music as performed by "Tutti Frutti" a group of 17 singers from Rincon who preserve Bonairean musical heritage.
A full sampling of Bonaire's rich musical culture is provided by the Grupo Folklorico, a troupe of eight dancers, four men and four women, together with an Antillean band, who perform regularly at festivals and occasionally throughout the year. The group also displays the rarely seen traditional costumes of Bonaire. The men dress in straw hats, billowing white blouses, long trousers, and colorful sandals from Venezuela known as Alpargatas. The women, however, wear much more elaborate outfits called Saya Koe Yaki, which consist of a bolero-style jacket and a long, flared skirt supported by starched and pleated petticoats. The skirts, customarily adorned with a bright floral pattern called 'Panya di Perpu' (purple flowers), were originally designed for working in the fields. The fronts are cut short to avoid dragging along the ground, while the backs hang a little lower for modesty when bending over.
Picture Bonaire's traditional festivals include the following: in the winter is the Mascarada (or Mascarade), celebrated from New Year's Day to Twelfth Night (January 6); in the spring is Simadan (Harvest Festival), celebrated from the end of February to the end of April; in the summer are the Feasts of San Juan and San Pedro, celebrated on June 23, 28, and 29; and in the fall is Bari, which occurs from the end of October until the end of December.
Sorghum harvest time in Bonaire is from February till the end of April. During this time the Kunuku (farm-owners), with the help of neighbors, friends and relatives, harvest the ripe and dry sorghum. To reward all this help and to celebrate the good harvest, a Simadan is set up at the Kunuku. It consists of dance, music, food, and abundant high spirits. The Simadan dance in Bonaire is called Wapa, which is a rhythmic, back-and-forth shuffle dance. Rows of people embrace, symbolizing the cooperative effort, and: Wapa!
Simadan has three traditional songs: Dan Simadan, Remailo, and Belua, all of which are sung in call-and-response form. The musicians use various typical instruments, including the marimba, wiri (guiro), bari (small drum), karko (empty conchshell -- strombus gigas linne), triangle, guitar, quarta (four-stringed guitar), and plain old hand-clapping.
Typical foods during Simadan include Funchi (similar to grits but less coarse) and Repa (pancakes made of Sorghummeal), served plain or with goat stew, goat soup, Giambo (okra soup, similar to gumbo), and Boontji Kunuku (local beans). All of these dishes are still an integral part of the Bonairean diet, although the availability of sorghummeal and boontji kunuku depends on the rainy season.
In the village of Rincon stands one of Bonaire's oldest and most symbolic buildings, the Mangasina di Rey, or Storehouse of the King. In earlier times, the building was the collective storage place for the island's food stores. During Simadan di Pastor, the culmination of the Simadan period, the area's kunuku-owners would bring a portion of their harvest to Rincon in celebratory processions, filled with song and dance. After the baskets of sorghum seed had been blessed at the church, and after prayers of thanks had been offered for the harvest, the seeds were given to the priest for storage in the Mangasina di Rey. During dry times, the community was supplied with sorghummeal. Simadan di Pastor, which takes place during Easter, is still celebrated in the towns of Nikiboko (on April 19) and Rincon (on April 20th).
Photo Bonairean Ladies courtesy of Tamara Brown
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