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Independent Marching Bands of Panama: The Tumbao Only They Can Play

In Panama, a popular phenomenon with unlimited potential has emerged. The country’s independent marching bands demonstrate not only music and technique, but feeling and art. No one can help falling in love with this music, regardless of age, sex, religion, principles, profession, or social status.

By: Panorama of the Americas Editorial Staff
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

It’s six in the morning but in tropical Panama City the sky is already bright. Even so, the weather is unpredictable and at any moment it could start raining. Calle 50 looks empty, but little by little, children, teenagers, women, and men begin gathering on the sidewalks and in roadside parking spots. Vendors shouting “Raspa’o 25 cents!” or “water, soda, juice…” walk on the edge of the street, trying to sell their wares to the spectators.

A single trumpet can be heard in the distance, announcing that the first band is approaching. People get ready. They look like thousands of ants in a hurry: they’re taking out their cameras and preparing water bottles for their marching children… And the march begins: first the bass drums mark the rhythm, then all the instruments join in one by one. A classic parade during Panama’s national celebrations.

Unlike other countries, where patriotic parades feature military marching bands, in Panama, collegiate and independent bands are responsible for the show. Throughout the month of November and especially on the 3rd, 5th, 10t,h and 28th, the bands are everywhere, in the capital as well as in towns throughout the country. Because of their grace, popularity, and ability to attract and entertain people, the bands are widely accepted by Panamanians.

However, it’s only after the official parades, in which 70 schools participate, that the real party begins for the independent marching bands, which are a little wayward, slightly irreverent, and way too enthusiastic for the restrained tastes of some of the organizers. But in the end, these bands are also honoring the country with their own tumbao, their own rhythm.

Independent marching bands aren’t affiliated with any educational institution. They were formed gradually by young people passionate about music, who loved drums and xylophones and wanted to continue playing even after they graduated. These boisterous and untraditional musicians have created a cultural phenomenon and provided the “coup de grace” for the established conventions of Panama’s national celebrations Panorama of the Americas visited some of these groups to try to understand what motivates them and why people so anxiously await them every year. The first clue comes in the way of a “barram bam barram bam barram” that sounds from afar one Sunday in September in a plaza in Panama City. The trumpets and xylophones join the rhythm of the march. Batons and drums fly through the air. It’s a practice day for the band El Hogar.

There are forty-three independent bands in Panama, including Panamá 2000, Centenario Internacional de Panamá, Panamá para Cristo, Súper Banda de Colón, and Banda Hispana, to name a few. Founded in 1953, El Hogar is one of the oldest. Sociologist Gilberto Toro explains that recent graduates originally created these bands. The founding members were not more than 20 years old but, little by little, people of all ages, beliefs, and tastes have joined in.

The country’s authorities have always approached the existence of the independent marching bands with a mixture of disregard, discipline, and admiration. Education officials responsible for the collegiate bands playing in the patriotic parades often talk about “controlling them.” “But they can’t do that because the independent band members are not students,” says Toro.

In any case, the independent marching bands have a mystery all their own that creates a strong draw for their members. As Tony Miller, director and founder of Megaband explains, “one of the baton twirlers suffered an injury days before the parades and the doctor said he would not be able to march. The next day, there he was in his formation ready to start.”

With examples like this, Panamanian lawyer Javier Justiniani noticed the unifying power of these independent bands and a dream emerged: he could use the bands as a tool for social change in the community. He founded the National Federation for the Independent Bands of Panama (FENABIP for its Spanish acronym), which brought together the leading exponents of this phenomenon. He also created the project, “Tambores de Paz,” (Drums of Peace) that offered a plan through which district representatives would buy instruments so that the young people of their communities could learn to play in the independent bands, channeling their energy into something productive and safe. Although Justiniani died in 2010 and his initiatives lost some of their force, many bands are still pursuing these objectives.

“We took the kids away from some of the social risk factors. We help these young people put aside gangs and become professionals,” says El Hogar bandleader, Ahmed Bolívar Sánchez. To join an independent band a person just needs to be responsible, respectful of their peers, and willing to participate. Members learn to work as a team and support each other. “When a person cares about you, you become a better person,” said Bernardo Aguilar, a lawyer, father, and proud former member of La Megabanda.

According to Tony Miller, to be in a band you must have “band blood.” If you have this kind of blood, when you hear drums in the distance, you want to know where they are and who is playing them. Joel Mendoza, captain of the drum battalion of El Hogar explains it like this, “There are soccer players and baseball players. Well, this is my sport, this is my band.” A sport that involves loving music, the band, and the country, experiencing the feeling of youth, cherishing beautiful memories for the rest of your life, having passion, and overcoming personal challenges.

“I will always remember when I played the note of silence when Rommel Fernández died, and everyone cried,” recalls Ahmed. Fernández, one of the first internationally famous Panamanian soccer players, died young in a car accident. “I will never forget November 4, 2008, when I directed the band to play an arrangement of the classical tune ‘Tío Caimán,’ which we had only just started to practice, with the faith and hope that no one would make a mistake. They began to improvise and they did not make any mistakes. That day I cried tears of joy,” Tony recalls.

Panama’s collegiate bands have a style that collegiate bands in other countries, such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the United States, are beginning to copy. Some of their captains and directors have been hired in those countries to give classes and share their style, a style also shared by Panama’s independent marching bands. They call it the tumbao, a combination of martial rhythms with national folk music and popular genres such as reggae, jazz, and calypso. They are original; tumbao is personal expression in musical form. Although a majority of the marches played are composed by the most prominent members of the band, they accept suggestions and contributions from all members.

The bands choose and design their own uniforms under the supervision of their directors. Búho de Oro has two different uniforms for November 3rd and 4th. The first day they use traditional white shirts and trousers, complemented by something of their own. The second day they wear dress uniforms that are redesigned every three years.

The organization of the bands can become incredibly complicated. Búho de Oro has a board of directors and a technical board (made up of captains from each section: trumpets, drums, and batons). Everyone in the band wears the same uniform. The board of directors wear stars, like soldiers, to differentiate themselves; technical board members are given a kepi that is a different color from the troops.

The choice of names also has a history. Búho de Oro (Golden Owl) began as the band of the Official Night School, the symbol of which was a black owl, because of the darkness of night. After a Ministry of Education regulation demanded that all members who were not students at the school withdraw from the band, the independent marching band was formed. The kids decided to keep the owl and they felt that the friendship they had forged was “golden.”

If you are in Panama in November and hear a “barram bam” approaching, don´t worry about the bright sun or if it’s going to rain, just hit the street. First, the official parades will pass by and you will start to feel the music vibrate through your body. But you will need a bit of patience. Soon you will see the drums fly higher on the horizon, the hips gyrate more rhythmically, and the uniforms shine a little bit brighter. You’ll know the independent marching bands are approaching. And suddenly, you will feel infected by the characteristic tumbao that is more than a melody or a mixture of sounds; it is that irrepressible spirit that is within each one of the independent marching band members. The tumbao they play in the patriotic parades each year is the fusion of all their souls and no one does it better.