Lebeha Drumming: Traditional Garifuna music by youth from Hopkins, Belize
1. Welcome to the Party
2. John Canoe
3. Paranda: Malati
6. Combination Dance
7. Paranda: Arabo
Proceeds benefit youth at the Lebeha Drumming Center, Belize
Lebeha Boys (in alpha order):
Roy Augustine (age 13): segunda drum, turtle shells, vocals
Anthony Eligio (14): dancer, vocals
Nicholas Joseph (13): dancer, vocals
Warren Martinez (14): primero drum, lead vocals
Shaquille Martinez (10): shakas, vocals
Clayton Williams (13): segunda drum, vocals
Ronald Williams (14): segunda drum, turtle shells, shakas, vocals
Jabbar Lambey, Center director, turtle shells
Belize, formerly British Honduras, sits under the Central American sun surrounded on three sides by the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west, and Honduras to the south. The fourth side forms the largest coral reef in the Northern Hemisphere. Hugging the shores of the lapping Caribbean, the village of Hopkins is a sleepy string of fishing shacks, the home of approximately 1,000 Garifuna people. At the north end of the strip you will find a thatched shed in the sand, some tropical birds enjoying the fruit trees, and, every night, a dozen or so kids eager to show you their drumming and dancing skills (after lubing up with Baby Oil to fend off the hungry sandflies).
The Lebeha Drumming Center (“Lebeha” means “the end” in the Garifuna tongue) was started in 2002 by drummer Jabbar Lambey and Canadian Dorothy Pettersen. It is not a therapeutic drum circle, it is not the more commercial Punta Rock style (exemplified by stars such as Pen Cayetano and Andy Palacio), and none of the kids is forced to practice. If nobody shows up to listen or to dance, the boys play for themselves with just as much vigor as they would at a major festival. They carry with them the singular tradition that is Garifuna culture: a cocktail-shaker-full of African and South American Indian ingredients.
The Garinagu (or Garifuna people) now live primarily along the coast from Belize to Honduras and Nicaragua. A storm in 1635 in the Lesser Antilles capsized two sailing ships carrying slaves from West Africa; primarily from Rivers State, Efiks, Calabaris in southeast Nigeria. Those who made it to shore on the island of St. Vincent began to mix with the Indian settlers; the Arawak and Red Carib people, who had migrated from Guyana and the Orinoco River area of Venezuela. By 1700 the British, Spanish and French colonialists sought to use their land for cotton and sugar plantations. These Red (and now Black-) Caribs withdrew to the mountains and a century of guerilla warfare ensued. Their defeat came in 1797 on Yurumein (Garifuna for the island of St. Vincent) when their chief, Joseph Chatoyer, died in battle, and the British forcibly exiled 4,000 of them to nearby Becquia and Roatan Island, Honduras, many of them dying en route. Dissatisfied with these arrangements they let the Spanish take over the island and headed for the coast of Stann Creek, Belize, near present day Dangriga and Hopkins.
Their arrival up the river on November 19th, 1832 (led by Alejo Beni, after finding themselves on the losing side of a revolution in Honduras) is now celebrated as Garifuna Settlement Day when reenactments of costumed musicians on boats kicks off a season of festivities in the area. UNESCO recently proclaimed Garifuna culture a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” though 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. Into this mixture come the wildly talented Lebeha Boys with the enthusiasm and hope of a new generation.
The drums are made by Austin Rodriguez of nearby Dangriga from mahogany or mayflower wood with deerskin hides. They are tuned by ropes on the sides and are then placed in the sun. The Primero drum is also called the male drum because it has been birthed from inside the larger female, carved from the same log. The Primero drummer and lead singer, or Gayusa, directs the musical changes, shows the greatest virtuosity, and calls the songs for the others’ response. The drums are played by hand and the trick is to be able to play fast while keeping the tone strong; qualities that young Warren Martinez has in abundance.
The shakas contain seeds from a fruit tree inside a calabash gourd, and the turtle shells are exactly that, strapped around the player’s neck. There are no guitarists at Lebeha although guitars are often used in this style of music.
Songs and Dances
Garifuna music encompasses what is known as Uremu song: voices with drums and other instruments, inseparable from dance. The only word in the Garifuna language for music refers exclusively to European instrumental music such as Quadrilles danced with violins and flutes.
1. “Welcome to the Party” sometimes known by its first line, “From Corozal to Toledo,” is the theme song for the Belize PUP political party but has become popular in its own right; illustrating how a composed song enters the folk tradition in such an oral culture. Here it has been reverse-engineered from its original amplified high pop style back into the traditional drumming format and incorporated as the first of a medley of songs. Towards the end each musician’s name is introduced and chanted in turn by the rest of the ensemble.
2. John Canoe (Wanaragüa) is a dance that tells the story of how Garífuna women, dressed in men's clothing, defeated a force of European soldiers at a time when their menfolk were afraid to go into battle. Male dancers honor the women's bravery by donning female attire, while the Europeans are represented by dancers wearing white costumes and masks. The dance is mostly performed around the Christmas period culminating on January 6th (Dia de los Reyes).
The dancers wear a pink wire mesh mask, extravagant headgear, and knee rattles along with raggedy clothing and lead the musicians with a lumbering gait. This is the only time that dancers lead the musicians; generally the drummers take charge of stirring up the crowd of dancers.
3. Paranda is both the name of a rhythmic pattern for dancing and also a genre of solo song, usually accompanied by guitar. The song style originated when the Garifuna first encountered Spanish music after their arrival in Honduras, and the art of the Parandero is now hanging on by a thread. Paranda melodies are often incorporated into dance music too. A dance may end up using a string of composed songs of the leader’s choosing, hence the Parandas recorded here are identified by their first song. Parandas are danced with the arms respectfully behind one’s back, guaranteeing a grope-free social interaction.
Paranda: Malati Isien (Worthless Love) was composed by the legendary Gabaga Williams, now in his 80s. This is perhaps the most well-known Garifuna composition. Later in the sequence of Paranda songs comes another famous song, Naguya Nei (I am Moving On) by the equally treasured Paul Nabor.
Garifuna culture despises gossip and confrontational conflict so sometimes arguments are sublimated in the form of a song. Thus a family’s squabble or late rent payment may be enshrined for generations.
4. Gunjai is another dance rhythm (not unlike the African Samba) and it demands especially fancy footwork of the dancers.
5. In Garifuna history, the Spaniards, who attempted to take the Garifuna’s land and property, humiliated Garifuna women by describing them as unfit to serve in any capacity, sexual or otherwise. In retaliation, Garifuna women developed the Chumba dance to demonstrate that not only were they talented individuals but also sexually attractive people.
6. Combination Dance features several Punta rhythms in succession (alternating with Hugu Hugu rhythms in contrasting triple meter) going ever faster and higher to energize the dance floor. This is a circle dance with unison (rather than call-response) singing and may be a secular version of the religious ancestor dance.
7. Paranda: Arabo. The lyrics of this Paranda begin: “Grab your machete, hold on to your sister, and let’s go to the farm.”
8. Punta, the most popular of Belizean dance rhythms, is danced by wiggling the waist with arms akimbo, chicken-like. Once the rhythm is set the dance can go on indefinitely. Although it has some affinity with the Afro-Caribbean Soca and Merengue dance rhythms the Punta is distinctive, partly because of the construction of the drums that feature buzzing snares (made from fishing line) peculiar to the Garifuna sound. The firework bursts of the Primero drum are heard to advantage here, displaying Warren Martinez’s lightning abilities (bear in mind the fingers alone do not produce this speed, the entire hand is used — the whole forearm moves up and down that fast!).
NOTE: This binaural stereo recording is best heard using headphones for full spatial effect.
Visitors, donations, and invitations to perform are welcome at Lebeha Drumming, Hopkins Village, Belize, Central America. [email protected]
Thanks to Ivan Duran
Producer, Recording engineer, Design: Philip Blackburn
Digital transfer and mastering: Dave Blackburn, Beat’N Track Studios; Preston Wright
Video: Preston Wright
Photos: Dave Blackburn, Philip Blackburn