When it comes to music, it’s easy to see that Aruba’s got talent on the local scene—from the Carnival parades and competitions to the live bands in the bars and resorts—this island really moves with its own unique and catchy beat.
But there are pioneers of traditional, authentic Aruban holiday music dating way back to the 1800s. They gleaned their complex gumbo of style, sound, and musical instruments from a mix of many influences and regions. And the tradition of dande—strolling from house to house on New Year’s Eve, after the stroke of midnight, to sing blessings to their neighbors and wish them a Happy New Year—is unique to this island.
It began right after the liberation of slaves when the freed Africans would go house to house with their tambu drums to Aruban homes to wish them good tidings. Locals joined in with an odd assortment of homemade instruments later like the wiri, the raspa, and later, violins, guitars, and accordions.
The name dande is derived from the Spanish word dandara which symbolized revelry. The songs evolved over time, and soon groups of strolling dande performers visiting local homes right after the midnight fireworks of New Year’s Eve became a tradition embedded in Aruban culture. The performers also began making up original music to go along with the traditional holiday song and began showing off their unique troupe style as well. But they all embraced the tradition of the hat!
Dande would not be dande without the passing of the hat
Arubans would welcome the musicians into their homes for a seasonal spirited drink like ponche crema—the traditional liquor-laden eggnog-style holiday cheer. They also had small change at the ready for the passing of the hat afterwards to thank them for their efforts. Soon, it became traditional for the lead vocalist to be the one holding the hat, though the hats became more snazzy and the musical shows more modernized, people still run up to fill up that hat.
Sadly, as with many cultural traditions, the door-to-door strolling of dande musicians began to peter out as the masters aged; young people showed little interest, and folks became less likely to welcome strangers into their homes. Much like American caroling has declined, so did dande show signs of disappearing for good. Then a few concerned citizens had an idea.
Why not make dande a festival that all could enjoy?
It was decided that between Christmas and New Year’s would be the ideal time to hold it. And maybe even hold competitions and crown kings and queens of the unique musical style like they do during Carnival. Arubans love their pageantry and competitions, and soon it became a very popular annual event with both locals and visitors alike. Better yet, they added a youth segment to it, encouraging young musicians and singers to form their own groups and compete for the crowns. Although traditionally the dande performers were all men, today women are also included in troupes and in forming their own all-female groups as well.
Popular local crooner, Edjean Semeleer (Aruba’s answer to Michael Bublé), holds the envious title of being crowned “The King of Kings” in past dande festivals. His ongoing participation has acted as a bridge between the generations, making the past cool again. He says, “I can’t imagine a New Year’s Eve without the happy, yet nostalgic tunes of our beloved dande. It’s such an important part of our culture and heritage. It fills me with great pride that now such a large group of singers and musicians, young and old, know how important it is to safeguard this musical legacy for our future generations. I take my “dande hat” off to those who have made it so!"
Watch Edjean—hat in hand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0hmTSTxEEo
Watch Grupo Di Betico perform: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWeOOFKgUo8
Though dates can change, the festival is always a 2-3 day event held in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and now it’s always at Plaza Betico Croes in Oranjestad.
It’s wonderful that the dande tradition is still alive and well on Aruba, and not just because it is a fun thing to see, hear, and do, but because it’s a uniquely Aruban style of music that should be shared for generations to come.
Visit the official Dande Facebook site: https://www.facebook.com/Dandearuba/
For updated information on 2017 Dande Festival dates, check our events calendar: https://nightspublications.com/aruba/events/dande-festival.