Barbados’ Tuk Bands and Traditional Costumes


Tuk is one of the most traditional forms of folk music, having its origins in the slave culture of the 17th century in Barbados. It was banned by the English as subversive; plantation overseers believed that the drums were being used to send messages, and it had to wait until after emancipation to resurface officially. Since the revival of Crop Over in 1974, tuk bands have flourished. The instruments used in a tuk band are the kettle drum, bass drum, and tin flute. Traditionally, the fiddle was a featured instrument, but this has slowly been replaced by the penny whistle. The music is lively, with a pulsating rhythm influenced by British regimental band music, waltzes, and traditional African music. It is “jump up” music, still very alive and a part of the modern day celebrations, festivals, and masquerade carnivals such as Crop Over, when tuk bands travel from village to village, playing popular tunes and inviting the audience to join in at will. There are several schools of tuk bands and they are promoted among the younger generation to preserve the island’s cultural heritage.

The Tuk Band is accompanied by costumed characters that are African in origin that were used to represent elements such as fertility, witch doctors, and to describe routes of commercial transportation or portray difficult times. Today, these characters may also represent salient political issues or figures. The regular costumed figures are Shaggy Bear, the Donkey Man, Mother Sally, and the Stiltman.

Shaggy Bear is said to represent an African witch doctor figure. Shaggy is also called the Bank Holiday Bear because “he always shows up on island Bank Holidays.” Donkey Man is representative of the island transportation that was used by the locals in Barbados’ past, the donkey cart. Mother Sally, a masked man dressed up like a woman with an exaggerated derriere, represents female fertility. The Stiltman represents surviving hard times and is closely related to the effigy of Mr. Hardin [see “The Barbados Crop Over” post, May 19].

Or more information, see

Painting by Warren Mullins, “Tuk Band, Holetown Festival,” from

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