From Brixton ‘Bananas’ to PG Plantain

Fyffes Belize through the ages

The first time I ate a plantain was when I lived in Brixton, London, five minutes’ walk away from Electric Avenue market. I had bought a large banana, but it didn’t want to peel properly, and it was a weird shade of yellow inside, and it tasted unripe and made my tongue feel funny even though it was a deep yellow on the outside. I had wondered for a while why so many market vendors in Brixton sold giant mouldy black bananas, but never really investigated.  Of course, I now know that I had actually bought a plantain, the banana’s starchier cousin.  Unfortunately I realised this after I had already subjected my friend Harriet to the same ‘banana’ eating experience.

Yellow and green plantain for sale on Electric Avenue, Brixton

These days, I am a plantain and banana expert – I even work in the so-called “banana belt” villages of Belize (helping the local teachers get trained). Thanks to Ray’s dad Mario, I know how to cook green bananas (you grate them and make them into burger shaped savoury “banana fritters” to eat with fish), yellow bananas (ok so they’re still best eaten straight out of their skin, but taste oh so much better when they’ve ripened on the tree!); over-ripe black-skinned plantain (chopped into slices lengthways and fried into unhealthy deliciousness); ripe plantain mixed with green plantain (boiled then pounded into submission ready to eat with hudut, a delicious Garifuna fish and coconut stew) and everything in between.  When I say I know how to cook all these things, I mean I watch Mario do it regularly – I leave all the actual cooking up to him!

I know that to grow a banana or plantain tree you just get a piece of banana tree stalk, stick it in the ground, and you’ll have bananas less then a year later. I know that good banana cultivation requires the merciless hacking down of all runt banana trees that sprout out of the bottom of the mother banana tree, leaving only the strongest daughter to rule once the mother has borne her bananas and is also mercilessly slaughtered.

Bananas freshly picked from Belize's banana belt for export

Yes I now have utmost respect for the humble banana family – and next time you see a Fyffes Belize banana at your local supermarket in the UK or Ireland, just think, I might have driven past that banana while it was still on its tree while visiting a school in a Mayan village just a few weeks previously.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

 

 

 

 

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Mundian to Bach Ke (Ronald McDonald vs. Punjabi MC)

The face off

I have a terrible singing voice. I love to sing, but only in private when (I think) nobody is listening. Ray has a good overall singing voice and a great Garifuna singing voice: Garifuna songs don’t require you to be in perfect tune or for you to sing like a bird, but they do require character and confidence, both of which Ray has when he sings. He sings all the time, and regularly puts a smile on my face by randomly running up to me and singing in my ear.

Sometimes, he tries to get me to sing along to a well-known Garifuna song. For whatever reason, even though we’ve been married almost one year and together almost 4, I get stupidly shy at such requests and refuse: I hate being put on the spot. My usual excuse is I can’t because it’s in Garifuna and I don’t know the words. Ray always tells me that doesn’t matter I just need to listen.

Once, when I was with him at his mum’s house, he was saying this to me again when his 12-year old niece Kathlyn was there. Kathlyn only started living with Ray’s family recently, as previously she was living with her Creole mother in Belize City, so she has only been learning about her Garifuna side the past 2 years. Kathlyn is a lovely girl, and agreed with me that it was hard to sing a song when you didn’t understand the language. (All credit to her though, she was at least willing to try!)

Ray however again claimed he had no such difficulties or inhibitions. So, I searched through my phone for a song I could test him with, and found the song Mundian to Bach Ke by Punjabi MC. I played it full volume through Ray’s amp and speakers, and challenged Ray to sing along. It has to be said that the performance of Mundian to Bach Ke – possibly the first time a Garifuna musician has sung in Punjabi – was hilariously funny but also quite impressive, and I thus completely failed to prove my point.

 

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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How to shake your arse (Belize style)

Go to any bar with live music at night in Belize, and you will witness the dominant form of Belizean dancing, which like the dominant form of Belizean music (Punta rock), originates from traditional Garifuna culture.  That is, it involves shaking your arse.   Visitors to Belize often marvel at how Belizean women especially are able to “move their ass completely independently of the rest of their body”, and think that they have developed special arse muscles that allow such frenetic yet well-controlled booty manoeuvres.

I have a secret to share: no special arse muscles are involved.  In fact, I would venture that you don’t really use your arse muscles at all.  Or even your waist muscles (not at beginners’ level punta/punta rock dancing anyway).  The key is all in the feet and legs.  If you stand still, feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly, and then bend one knee more than the other, you will find your other knee straightens.  Then you switch and bend your other knee forward more.  Keep doing this, and you will find a funny thing happens: your arse moves side to side.  No special arse muscles required.

Of course, to look professional, you have to do it in time to the music, and be able to move around side-to-side, forwards, backwards, in a circle, and a few other little fancier movements here and there, but that is the basic secret.  So stop focussing on your arse, shift your knees, and be prepared to look like an idiot.

Ray likes to take credit for the fact that I can now dance punta (and paranda, and to a certain extent hungu-hungu), and while he did give me two or three lessons (where even though it was just me and him in the house I still felt like a complete idiot!), I think most of it just came from getting bored sitting down watching everyone else having a good time, and finally thinking “ach stuff it who cares” to all those that wanted to laugh at the white gal who (couldn’t) dance.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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He-He-Hey! Sucking Teeth & Pointing Lips

I’ve lived in a few different countries in my life, and in each one, I have learned the specific cultural gestures and sounds that are used to communicate on a daily basis. In South Korea, people would make a “hol” honking like sound when surprised or shocked, and would beckon people with their arms held out full stretch, palms down, frantically flapping their fingers (doing it palm-up is highly insulting, as that is how you beckon a dog).

In Belize, Garifuna people have the Garifuna laugh, which phonetically goes something like “he-he-he-ey!” – the final “he-ey” being louder and higher pitched than the rest. They also have a habit of pointing at people with a slight upwards nod of the head and sticking out their lower lip. Sucking your teeth to make a squelchy kind of reversed hiss is the Belizean sound of annoyance or impatience. I try and think of what some typically Scottish non-verbal communications are, but I guess they are so deeply ingrained in me that I can’t identify them – feel free to enlighten me!

 

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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Belizean Blue Crab Syndrome

Coming out for the annual rain dance

I will most probably always be considered an outsider in Belize, but I think that is the case in almost any country you emigrate to where you stick out either due to your accent, skin colour, background or otherwise. And there are definitely many things that I still don’t know about or don’t understand about Belizean culture. One of them is something known as Blue Crab Syndrome.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Belizean wildlife, at the start of every rainy season, thousands of giant (up to 10 inches including claw span) blue crabs emerge from the mud of the jungle/ditch/back yard to do a celebratory rain dance before the rains dry and they go into hibernation again. Of course, many Belizeans like a good crab soup, and so crabs are often caught and stuck in a bucket ready for the stew pot.

Blue crabs ready for the stew pot

Not surprisingly, the crabs don’t care too much for buckets or stew pots, and try to climb out, but none of them make it, as they all step and stumble over each other and pull each other back down. I don’t know if it is due to colonialism’s divide & conquer phenomenon, or a side-effect of being such a small country, but sadly, it is all too common for Belizeans to hamper and sometimes actively sabotage their neighbours’ attempts to better themselves. Sometimes it even goes as far as burning down houses or businesses, but more commonly involves spreading malicious rumours and the like. Thankfully Ray is generally well liked in PG, so we haven’t suffered anything too detrimental as yet, but I am always disappointed when Belizean owned local businesses fail to support what we are trying to do. We haven’t asked anyone for money, just for a good word and general advice, but it’s not always as forthcoming as we’d like. Ironically, it is the expat-owned businesses that support the venture more. Of course there are many locals that totally support what we are trying to do, and I hope that continues and spreads so that Warasa isn’t another victim of Blue Crab Syndrome.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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Ronald McDonald learns to ceilidh

According to Ray, I dance to everything the same way.  I admit I’m not the world’s greatest dancer, but I know for a fact that I definitely do not dance to Teenage Kicks the same way I dance to Ray’s drumming.  Living in Belize for several years has a strange affect on your dancing style though.  Instead of tapping your foot or bopping your head along to music, you end up shaking your arse.  Even while sitting down.  Even to The Proclaimers.  Ray is a good dancer, and thanks to me, has even mastered the Gay Gordons and Military Two Step.  We had a mini-ceilidh at our wedding, which was definitely the highlight of the reception, as Belizeans love to dance, and so we had a room of people in hysterics as they all attempted to keep up with the old heel-toe-heel-toe in the tropical heat of Belize.   Sadly all my official and unofficial photographers also joined in, so I have no photographs of this epic moment, but we may repeat the event annually since everyone enjoyed it so much!  Ray will get his ceilidh skills tested to the max this New Year’s however, as we joining in on the Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Keilidh – he’ll have to dance or he’ll freeze!  Now if only I could persuade him to don a kilt…

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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Such stuff as dreams are made on

The one thing Ray never gets tired of is talking about his music and culture.   In private, he is often a very quiet person, but if I want to get him talking, all I have to do is ask him what the words to the song he is listening to means, or something else about his music or drumming.  He doesn’t like to read, but he wants a Garifuna history book, because he says he wouldn’t get bored reading about that.  Since I first met Ray, he told me about his dream to have his own Garifuna drumming school, where he could teach locals and visitors about Garifuna drumming and culture, and also have Garifuna clothes, cooking utensils and other artefacts in a small museum.  For some reason, nobody in PG had already done this, despite PG being the second biggest Garifuna settlement in Belize.  PG, being the main town in Toledo district is more known for the Maya population, even though most town dwellers are Garifuna and the town was founded by Garifuna people.

At the time, I was volunteering at Belize Council for the Visually Impaired, so we were in no financial position to start anything much, but I figured you have to start somewhere, so I printed some basic business cards to give out, and painted some simple signs to put in our yard and around town.

The first hand-painted signs

And so Ray got his first local student – Niki, the daughter of a local doctor.  Then, a few weeks after our wedding, Ray got a call from Ian Morton of Hickatee Cottages, a nearby jungle Bed  & Breakfast, asking him to do a lesson out there.  The lesson was a hit, and since then, Ray has done weekly taster lessons for guests at Hickatee, with some guests going on to book additional private lessons.  I painted some more signs, bumped into Lonely Planet writers, made more cards, persuaded backpackers on buses to have a lesson or two, wrote a business plan (in the vain hope someone would fund the venture!) and so on.  No funding came our way, but again, I figured you can’t rely on other people, so we started saving up for Ray to get some of his own drums made for if people wanted group lessons.  Ray now has 4 segunda and 2 primero drums, with 3 more on the way, all being made by his uncle, dad and himself.  He’s in the latest Lonely Planet & Moon Belize guidebooks, is on TripAdvisor, and has a website.

We will certainly never become rich from Warasa, and will always have to have other “regular” jobs in order to live, but at least Ray is starting to live his dream, and the Garifuna culture lives on.   Ideally, Ray wants to teach more local children how to drum, but for most families, they have other more important priorities like paying  for food and school fees.  If anyone would be interested in sponsoring a local child to learn drumming, please let us know – we would post regular pictures and videos of their progress.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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