Hear and Follow
by Amelia PureHeart
You hear them before you see them. A cacophony of cracking snare and rumbling subsidiary drums. You hear them and you follow. In the tradition of call & response, of hide & seek, of tracking a heartbeat - because that’s what they are, pulsing, jumping, springing, alive, heartbeats. The first time I saw the Gombeys I’m pretty sure I cried, I say this because I know that my earliest subsequent memories of interactions with Gombeys were full of tears. I’ve heard similar stories and to this day seen the odd 2 or 3 kids turn into their mother or father’s leg, hold on tight and wail through their little contracting chests - a sound to rival the thundering expanse of percussion trailing behind the flurry of moving color that is the Gombeys. I don’t know what it is about little kids and Gombeys that spawn fear - maybe the masks or the erratic movements?
I recently came across a photo (in the limitless void that is the internet) of a child, wedged in between two sanitation workers, garbage men. The little kid was holding a toy garbage truck and his face was utterly contorted and frozen in time to display the very middle of a hearty good ol’ cry. The caption accompanying the picture, written by his father stated,
Overwhelmed in the presence of his heroes is the key here. I do remember that when I was young, and the Gombeys had left and I had untucked my buried face from my mother’s leg, or arm, or neck - I’d always feel (what young me did not yet have words to describe as) remorse. There was something empty in me after they were gone and had turned the corner, while the wake of their drums faded with every moving second into the air. I didn’t know at the time that that was the pain of allowing fear to confront me, rather than me confronting it.
This happens to us in life sometimes, in various forms we recoil in aegis and by doing so lose out on an important (if albeit uncomfortable) experience. We don’t apply for that position, or grant, or two yearlong sabbatical in Guatemala. We don’t have enough money for the degree, or the house, or to backpack across south Asia, so we postpone - or worse, abandon. We live in the shallows of our life’s shadows. I get it, it’s safe, shit is rough, life is an ever unpredictable road. But so what? If I’ve learned anything from poking my head out of the security of my mother, it was the feeling of longing, of wanting something back, something that I missed, something that I miscalculated. And ok, sure, I may be assigning an excessive amount of precociousness to my past young self, but in the retrospect, the older more learned me has to at least attempt to uncover the metaphor to learn from.
Which brings me to the present, January 1, 2016 approximately 13 hours into the new year and I’m inside, passively watching a Bizarre Foods marathon on the Travel Channel and running through the motions on my laptop. When I’m summoned outside, to hear the drums.
“Let’s go find them!”
This isn’t me exclaiming this, me, is dropping my shoulders and making a myriad of excuses : “I’m not dressed. We haven’t eaten yet. Aren’t we supposed to drive to Somerset in a bit?”
In the end, I’m dragged by the reluctant inertia of my feet, propelled only by what little free will my body will allow me when it comes to deciding whether to stay in a very cocooned position on the couch, or actually moving.
Ten minutes later we’re in a random driveway, following the snare cracks throwing themselves in the wind. Up two or three more roads, down a few private drives, in front of a couple of people’s homes and an (almost) tumble off of an unscientifically possible steep hill.
And then it was louder, and closer, and we could make out the peacock feathers above the heads of people that had come out of their homes, their cars and down the street, following their ears. The closer we got, the louder it felt. This is a very nuanced thing. Sound, is something you feel. I figured this out when I was knee deep in a music degree in Minnesota and my earbuds kept breaking every few weeks, perpetually forcing me to buy new pairs. I used to wait until I absolutely could no longer feel the music - but only ‘hear’ it, in whatever fragmented and distorted form that the damaged headphones offered. When I finally got the new headphones though, I always experienced the same thing - a sonic reverie - the music bounding out of the crisp new earbuds and reverberating down my arm, rattling my fingertips, shaking my spine and rendering all my nerves to spastic effect in seconds. It was like a high. That’s what sound does - it affects you - it’s a physical experience. We all know the science of sound waves and eardrums and blah blah blah vibrations - yeah, it’s droll (if you don’t care for science-y things) but it hits home the reality of what happens when we hear (feel) something.
This is what happened to me - the closer we got to the Gombeys the more the bass drum vibrated my ribcage - the snare started snapping through my nerve and muscle tendons and the fife, mannnnn the fife (who even plays this instrument anymore?!?!) found it’s way through the crevasse of memories that I had saved in various pitches and timbres of my past and carried me to every other iteration of Gombey interaction I had had. In short, it returned me to somewhere familiar while concurrently thrusting me through my present. It moved me, which is the point of the Gombeys right? They move, you move, they dip, you dip, they skank, you skank. The Gombeys, for all in part of their historical significance and background are the perfect metaphor for self propulsion. I mean damn, it’s the first day of the year, and I stumbled (rather serendipitously) onto my first experience of hearing, tracking, chasing and following the Gombeys.
At 28 years old I finally found and followed them. At 28 out from the jam of my mother’s arm, to a place infinitely far from her protection, I figured out what it means to grow from fear. The Gombeys have been the mascot for freedom, for revelry, for perseverance. Maybe now they can be the mascot for the thing they do most - moving. It’s a new year, a scary one, a promising one, and a learning one. Maybe it’s time to unhinge ourselves from whatever securities we’ve hunkered into for protection. Maybe it’s time to crane our necks, lift our ears and listen intently for the sound to move us.