Belize is a diverse, mixed up little country on the coast of mainland America – wedged between Mexico to the North, Guatemala to the South and West, and the Caribbean Sea to the East. Indigenous Mayans, British colonialists, shipwrecked Garifuna fisherman, Mulatos, Creoles, Mestizos, Chinese and even the Amish and the Mennonites, can all be seen riding around the country in retired US school buses. Reggae jams pumping, hurtling down roads lined by jaguar filled jungles, with fleeting glimpses and panoramic vistas of the Caribbean Sea, complete with palm trees, fishing boats and cabanas.
Gaining independence from Britain in 1981 (it was previously British Honduras) the mainland country sways to a distinctly Caribbean vibe, with English as its official language. Many people there profess music to be the main cultural asset, though it is often hard to find live music, beyond the locals’ penchant for karaoke in beachside bars, where the rum costs less than water back home in Australia. Everyone agrees though – the music of Belize is to be found in the South of the country, where many of the Garifuna people live.
The Garifuna people are now found all along the Caribbean coast of Central America – in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In 1635 a ship carrying African slaves, predominantly from Nigeria, capsized in the Caribbean Sea. Some of the slaves were able to make it ashore to St. Vincents Island where they began relations with the native Indians, the Arawak and Red Carib people, who had migrated from Guyana and Venezuala respectively. After a century of integration, and impressive reproduction rates, the Garifuna became the dominant group in St. Vincents’ society, causing social ruptures and rifts. Soon the French were involved, and then the British. Decades of war ensued and the Garifuna were deported to the Honduran island of Roatán, where they continued to flourish and procreate. Forced to flee yet again after the republican revolt in Honduras, they continued their exodus, in ever increasing numbers to the southern Belizean coastline in 1832. Today the 20,000 or so Garifuna people make up 6% of the Belizean population.
We found some live music in Hopkins, a small Garifuna fishing village just south of Dangriga – a larger Garifuna fishing village with a Rastafari culture – think tropical heat, fresh fish, weed, reggae and t i m e . We had to hitchhike with some Mennonites from Dangriga because the bus wasn’t coming that day, or maybe it was, or was it yesterday? Or maybe it wasn’t on Thursdays, but Fridays? No one could be sure, yet everyone had an opinion about when the bus was or wasn’t coming. All agreed though, we could catch it from where the main street and the river intersect…That’s if it showed up – which it didn’t. All I can say is thank the lord for the Mennonites.+
Once in Hopkins we found the Lebeha Drumming Centre, at the Northern end of town. The centre was started 10 years ago by Jabbar Lambey, a Garifuna drummer and Dorothy Pettersen, an ex-pat from Canada. We entered in to the neatly kept grounds and met Jabbar. I asked if there would be any performances coming up, as I was interested in making some recordings. He explained that he could get some people together and we could make some recordings that evening.
We returned that evening to find Jabbar, Warren and John ready with their drums, which are made in nearby Dangriga by Austin Rodriguez. The drums are made from mahogany and mayflower woods with animal hide skins, including the Primero (first drum) the Segunda (the bass drum), shakers which contain seeds from a fruit tree inside a calabash gourd, and turtle shells – quite literally a turtle shell strapped around the percussionists neck and struck with soft mallets.+ Garifuna music is quite different from the music of the rest of Central America. The most famous form is Punta, while other forms of Garifuna music and dance include the hungu-hungu, wanaragua, matamuerte, sambai, paranda, berusu, and punta rock; some of which can be heard in these recordings.
In 2001, Garifuna music was proclaimed one of the ‘Masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ by UNESCO, along with Garifuna language and dance, though as the Lebeha Drumming Center says on its website ‘this does little to help the hand to mouth daily existence of the people. Tourism and escape to the U.S. offer some consolation and money but there are few opportunities for the practicing masters of the tradition; some of the finest elder musicians are now more conversant with a bottle of rum than with a drum. Fortunately the musicians at the Lebeha Drumming Centre are keeping the tradition alive and kicking.
To learn more about the Lebeha Drumming Centre or about Garifuna culture in general, check out these links –+