The first major act of Curaçao’s Carnival celebrations is the Tumba Festival, held every year in late January. This is a week-long competition to choose the official song of Carnival, during which dozens of songs battle it out to be the top jam, all performed live in front of a big crowd.
The Tumba Festival has an official history stretching back 45 years. It’s related to “tambu,” which was the traditional music of Curaçao’s slave population. Although they had only percussive instruments to play upon, Tambu was an important part of the culture and remained socially relevant even after the end of slavery, thanks to its pointed, political lyrics, sung in Papiamento.
Switch a couple vowels around, add in some other musical influences, and Tambu becomes Tumba: still sung in Papiamento, but played with a heavy dose of Latin and jazz. The Tumba Festival has grown to become one of the most popular annual events in Curaçao, with tickets to the Friday night finals increasingly difficult to come by. The winner of the festival is named King or Queen of Carnival, and the winning song becomes the official anthem of the celebrations.
Tumba is almost exactly how you would expect a Curaçaoan style of music to be, with performances that are loud, colorful, relaxed, and intent on having a good time. The songs are repetitive and go on for ages, but the musicians on stage don’t mind. Huge bands comprising dozens of horns, keyboards, guitars, drums, singers and dancers are all having so much fun loosely playing along with the rhythm, that they’d allow the music to go on indefinitely.
Of course we didn’t understand a word of what they were singing about. And once we had listened to a few Tumba songs, we’d heard plenty; they’re all quite similar to each other. But the people here love this style of music, and the finals on Friday night turn into a huge party which goes on until three or four in the morning.
The title of Tumba King 2016 went to Rubertico Balentien, who won the crowd over with his rousing tune Nos dos ta bati bai (We’re Going Together). Check it out if you want, and see if you can resist dancing to the beat.