Published on:

Aruba’s Bon Bini Festival…Have You Been?

By Debbie Kunder

I have lived on the island of Aruba since 2003, and I am ashamed to admit that despite the fact that I live within a 10-minute walk of Fort Zoutman in downtown Oranjestad, I had never once attended the Bon Bini Festival until last Tuesday night. My husband and I had close friends visiting, and since they are musicians, I thought it would be the perfect time to go check out this music-centric event.

Fort Zoutman is Aruba’s oldest structure, built at the end of the 18th century by the Dutch as a military fortification. Willem III Tower was added to the fort in 1868 to serve as a lighthouse. Today, the complex houses the Aruba Historical Museum and hosts the weekly Bon Bini Festival. I have driven by the historic complex countless times, but being inside is a whole nother experience—it’s beautifully charming!

Fort Zouman Aruba

Bon bini means “welcome” in the local language of Papiamento, and indeed, the festival welcomes island visitors (and locals too) to learn about Aruba’s history, folklore, and traditions through a delightful evening of storytelling, music, and dance. The welcome feels genuine, as audience members are even invited to participate in dancing, Papiamento lessons, and an awesome Carnival parade finale.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The festival opened with a five-piece band delivering traditional Aruban music. I personally love this style of music—the folksy twang, the simple beat of the conga, the unique raspy addition of the wiri, and the pretty rhythm are all so pleasantly heartwarming. Our friend Hillary went home with a wiri of her own, in fact, and I can’t wait to hear how she incorporates this traditional Aruban instrument into her own blues band at home in Charleston, South Carolina.

An engaging emcee provided the historical commentary throughout the evening, taking the audience on a journey through Aruba’s past, from 2500 BC to present day. The various historical periods were highlighted on stage through dramatic performances and dances. For example, the period of early Dutch colonization was represented by the Dutch “ribbon dance,” as well as a provoking segment about a rebellious slave named Virginia. Aruba’s tradition of aloe cultivation was represented by the baila di cosecha (harvest dance). The local harvest festival, known as Dera Gai, was also celebrated onstage, with audience members chosen to participate.

Bon Bini Festival Aruba
Fort Zoutman Aruba, Bon Bini Festival
Ribbon dance
Aruba Bon Bini Festival
Baila di cosecha
Dera Gai Bon Bini Festival Aruba
Dera Gai

I have to say, I was highly impressed with the Popcorn Dancers, who performed more numbers than I can count. They still had the stamina to add an Aruban waltz (performed to “Abo So,” written by famed local musician Padu Lampe), a mazurka, and a tumba to their repertoire. The traditional caha di orgel (organ grinder) cranked out a few tunes, including “Sopi di Yuwana” (“Iguana Soup”).

Aruban waltz
Aruban waltz

For me, the Bon Bini Festival was a classic case of saving the best for last. To tie Aruba’s oil boom days (which played an important role in shaping the island’s Carnival tradition) to present times, the members of Quality Brass took over the stage with a commanding presence, followed by a troupe of Carnival dancers. (Those drums, though. I’m seriously wondering how hard it would be to take up the drums and join a local brass band!) The entire entourage then paraded out of the fort into the street for a memorable finale. To the embarrassment of my husband, I danced all the way to the car.

Aruba brass band
Aruba brass band
brass band Aruba

Should you make the Bon Bini Festival part of your Aruba vacation? Absolutely. I wish I hadn’t waited 16 years!

*Local craftspeople sell their arts and crafts just inside the fort as you enter through the tower. A corner kitchen offers meals, snacks, and beverages. The night I went, they were serving grouper filet and baked chicken with funchi (polenta), pastechi, and beef soup.

When: Every Tuesday evening, 6:30 – 8:30 pm. (Note that the show actually starts at sundown so that the film projected on the fort wall is visible. This gives you time to visit the bar and find a seat.)

Cost: US$10 per person (Afl. 10 for locals)

aruba crafts
Local crafts