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!
Dugu – Painting by Belizean artist Benjamin Nicholas
Listening to many Garifuna songs, they are very up-tempo. My Scottish indie-rock loving music tastes assumed that they must therefore be quite cheerful – maybe about catching lots of tasty fish a particular day. But that’s not how Garifuna music works – there is a particularly up-tempo Garifuna punta song that is all about when Hurricane Hattie almost completely destroyed many towns and cities in Belize:
Wa ba bumalali, Sili, lanarime dan
(You’ve raised your voice, Syl, how terrible the storm).
Wa ba bumalali, nirüa
(You’ve raised your voice, my child.)
Nabugu yali ubüu
(The earth has been brought low)
Wa wama ferudun, wonweguü yebe
(Let us beg forgiveness, we nearly died)
Larugan aningira hüruha ubüu
(At dawn the earth lay in sadness)
Laramaüahandügü wagüa, giüngiuüahündügü wagüa
(We could only stand around, just sucking our teeth).
Higüu waban? Barüla Hati
(Where is our house? Hattie has taken it)
Garifuna people believe in ancestral spirits, and that their ancestors continue to talk to them and guide them after death. For this reason, death is not considered such a sad time, and the wake of a well-known Garifuna person in PG is one of the biggest parties to be found in any given year, with all night drumming, dancing and singing (plus a little gambling to round things off).
The most important cultural ceremony that the Garifuna conduct is the Dugu, a large ceremony that takes place in the local Garifuna temple that can last over a week – I was honoured enough to attend 24 hours at one of Ray’s family’s dugu. A Dugu is held whenever there is some kind of trouble in the family, and the ancestors ask for a Dugu through the Buyei – the spiritual leader of the Garifuna temple., in order to heal the illness or seal the family rift that has occurred. The entire extended family is expected to attend, no matter what country they live in. The drumming during Dugu is especially important, with the sacred Dugu rhythm being played on large segunda drums only, which have been blessed and should never leave the temple. Daily offerings of food are prepared, with each ancestor’s favourite food being specially prepared. Once the appropriate drumming, singing and blessings have taken place, and the ancestors have had their fill, the living family can eat, with any left over food being ceremonially buried. Drumming, singing and dancing goes on through the night, with the drummers only sleeping for one or two hours here and there. Incense such as copal (termite nests!) burns throughout the Dugu. At certain stages some family members may be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor and either start dancing in the same style as the ancestor, or may pass on some oral advice or message.
Ray told me that when he went to a family Dugu after our trip to Scotland, his grandfather told him (through the Buyei) that he had followed us, and described in detail some of the places we had visited. Sometimes evil spirits make an appearance during a Dugu, and they most be exorcised by even more spiritual drumming, dancing, singing and blessings. While I may be a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural, I totally respect Ray’s spiritual beliefs, and have certainly witnessed for myself the healing effect it has on a family during troubling times.
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.
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…
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.
Ray is famous in PG for his drumming. He may never have one the annual “Battle of the Drums” competition in PG (clearly the judges aren’t in their correct minds), but anyone that loves drumming will hire Ray and his family to drum for any event above any other local group. As Ludwig Palacio, local poet, artist and veterinarian once said to me: “some people knock drum like they’re at war with it, like they’re trying to knock it into submission… but Ronald – he caresses that drum and produces something magical” Of course I am totally biased, but I do happen to think Ray is the best drummer in Belize, possibly the world. One day, I asked Ray how he learned to play the Primero. I knew that he taught himself from age 5, but obviously he must have been watching someone. Sadly his inadvertent teacher (called Simon) is no longer alive he said, but he must have been good. Ray says his teachers at school would always scold him at school for drumming on his desk…it’s such a shame they couldn’t have channelled his talent instead of telling him off about it.
A few months ago, Ray and I were at his uncle’s house watching (me) and helping (Ray) make a drum. I was perched on the edge of another future drum. Ray’s dad Mario was also there. Everyone was taking a few minutes rest from the hot Belizean sun. A little boy came running into the yard, and then stopped in his tracks when he saw me. He looked at me suspiciously, then hovered in the corner for a minute or two. He then plucked up some courage, and said
“Uncle, I wahn ask you somting”.
Ray responded “Well ask me den”.
“It’s a secret”.
“Well come tell me in my ear den”. The little boy whispered in Ray’s ear.
Ray roared out “Who dat white gyal? She da me wife, she yo auntie, hear?!”.
The little boy looked mortified at having his secret question blurted out, but recovered, and then looked confused while he continued to look sidelong at me: “She cahn be my auntie”.
Ray: “Oh really? Why cahn she be yo auntie?”.
“Cos she white”
At which point, Ray’s dad jumped in and said,
“Boy! Even if she green, she still yo auntie, hear!”
After a few months of listening to Ray and his family play drums almost every weekend, I still knew very little about Garifuna drumming and music. One night Ray’s dad, Mario, carried a tape recorder to the bar, and I was given the job of recording them play. On playing it back, Mario asked me “wind it back to weh part we change from punta to paranda”. He overestimated my abilities somewhat! You see, when Garifuna groups play, they play non-stop for 20-40 minutes, and in that time, will sing 5 or 6 songs, and often switch rhythms half way through. The uninitiated just think that Garifuna songs last forever! In actual fact, all Garifuna songs are stories, about daily life, tragic events or their cultural history, so it kind of makes sense that they let the stories flow naturally from one to the next.
At some point, my proper initiation into Garifuna music and drumming began with Ray teaching me to play the Paranda beat on the large Segunda drum. It’s the simplest one to learn, and looks very easy. If you have zero drumming experience however, it is much like mastering how to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time but at different speeds and while desperately trying NOT to watch the person juggling chopsticks next to you. But that is when I finally started to grasp where one song ended and another began. I can now proudly say I can identify (but not play!) all of the 7 core Garifuna rhythms, and I can now also tell when people are not playing it right.
When I left Scotland on my first long-term overseas adventure, my good friend Linda wrote me a goodbye and good luck card which I have carried with me ever since. In amongst many lovely things she wrote, she said I “live life to the beat of my own drum”. I wonder if she’s an unwitting psychic, as now I am indeed living life to the daily beat of drums on the other side of the world in Belize.
I met my husband Ray (full name Ronald Raymond McDonald)at a bar in Punta Gorda town, Belize, during Toledo district’s annual Cacao Festival. I was there with my visiting friend Becky, and he was playing drums. Actually, he wasn’t supposed to be. Another group were playing drums, but he was “helping them out” by singing and occasionally taking over playing the small Primero drum. Four years later, I know that Ray is incapable of sitting down to watch and listen to other people play Garifuna drums, because either “they no play good” or “they cyahn sing the song properly”. A drumming and Garifuna singing perfectionist. Maybe that’s why his dream is to teach people drumming, because he just can’t handle hearing people do it wrong!
The first things I remember about when I first met Ray were his huge white smile, his drummer’s arms, and his persistent attempts to drag me up to dance. Not much has changed, except now I can do a little punta dancing without feeling like I’m going to reinforce all the locals’ beliefs that “white gyals cyahn dance gud”.
I’d been living in PG, as Punta Gorda is known, for about four months, and had often heard the drumming coming from a mile away every Friday night, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it live. I loved it, except when the group would break into a very bad rendition of Jonny Cash’s Ring of Fire or some Backstreet Boys’ number – I may not have known what any of the real Garifuna songs were about, but I was sure they were far superior to any Backstreet Boy’s number, and I just don’t think Jonny Cash songs should be messed with.