“Imagine the sound of a steady booming bass drum, accompanied by the triumphant blast of a dozen horns, highlighted by the toot of a whistle, the clack of a set of cowbells, and the rake and scrape of a wood saw. Your body perspires with sweat as your heart races and pounds with excitement at the anticipation of a grand Junkanoos rush, which is associated with the commencement of GOOMBAY! The sounds of a Junkanoos band will ignite a fire deep in your soul and for native Key West Conchs, it’s the very essence of who they are!”
Gumbe, pronounced (Goombay) is a membranophone percussion instrument that has one goat skin head that is held between the legs and played with your hands or a set of sticks. This drum is a key element of the Junkanoos orchestra. The name Gumbe is also synonymous with a Goombay Festival. In Key West Florida, the annual Goombay Festival, is a two day cultural celebration consisting of a variety of family friendly activities featuring live music, entertainment, traditional Bahamian arts & crafts, and numerous food vendors that provide delicious foods from the islands. Although it is now known as the precursor for Fantasy Fest, another popular street festival, Goombay has a very extensive history. Drawing over 80,000 people to our small island each year, the festival has generated a significant boost in tourism. The origins of the Goombay festival are rooted in the strong presence and pride of Bahamian culture, which still exists.
The influence of Bahamian culture is an integral segment of the melting pot of ethnic diversity in Key West.
During the mid 19th century, the poor economic climate and employment opportunities in the Bahamas led a mass migration of Bahamians to the Florida Keys . Most immigrants hailing from both Eleuthera and Cat Islands were instrumental in the early formation of the Conch Republic . Being native to the tropics made work in Key West easy to find and they swiftly began laboring in the profitable industries of the times. Many were employed in the fishing, sponging and turtle industries, while others labored in the construction of the Henry Flagler Florida Overseas Railroad. Although away from home, Bahamian residents were still able to retain much of their cultural heritage. They listened to and performed Junkanoos rake & scrape music, engaged in the classic art of west Indian storytelling, created Bahamian style art such as straw weaving and canvas art. Cooking traditional Bahamian food staples such as conch, peas and rice, and desserts such as Johnny cake, coconut candy, and duffs (especially guava). Over time they began to love and embrace the tiny island of Key West and became fixated here. They named themselves “Key West Conchs” and began starting families and populating the old town/Bahama Village area. Since then, this area has become one of the eldest African American communities in south Florida and is where the Key West Goombay festival is held each year.
The festival was originally named the Island Roots Heritage Food and Street Fair and was first celebrated during the early 1970’s. It was coordinated by the Neighborhood Improvement Association.. The N.I.A, as it was affectionately known, was comprised of local politicians and community leaders. Local dignitaries such as Merlin Curry, Charles Major Jr., Dr. Otha Cox, Willie Ward, Fred Shaw, and James Andrews were committed to improving and restoring the neighborhood of Bahama Village . The N.I.A, along with the dedicated and hard working Bahama village residents, were able to produce a lively festival, influenced by the residents pride in their Bahamian culture.
The traditional Junkanoos rush parade kicked off the festival and was highlighted by the world renowned Royal Bahamas Police Band, Key West Island Junkanoos, The local Bahama Village Drill Team, Ms. Black Heritage and her royal court, and the Mokojambe Stilt Walkers. Upon hearing the sounds of the Junkanoos, residents would rush from their homes and workplaces to follow behind the bands, dancing and parading all through the streets of Key West.
Local restaurateurs and cooks lined Petronia Street to sell delicious treats, some of which were prepared in their own homes. Josepha and Horace Mobley, Florence Wilson, Bishop Albert and Sandra Key, and local churches and organizations were some of the numerous food vendors that provided the festival with the delicious and succulent Bahamian delicacies of cracked conch, conch fritters, conch salad, fried fish and grits, and Johnny Bread.
Musicians and entertainers such as Coffee Butler and his cups, Bill Butler, Cliff Sawyer, youth band “Black Rock”, and Commissioner Clayton Lopez and his band were known to grace the Goombay stage playing calypso, soca and steelpan rhythms providing the live entertainment of the festival. To this very day some of these same people are still contributing their talents to the festival.
Though the management of the festival has varied over the years, the overall focus of those involved still remains the same. By celebrating and sharing cultural aspects of their rich heritage, community residents are still able to put on a festival that they can take pride in and create economic and innovative opportunities for others.
— Mia Castillo