All to the Sound of the Brokdong

By Myrna Manzanares
Edited by Naturalight Productions Ltd.

It is the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the Christmas season. The mahogany workers are coming home from camp to families they have not seen for months. The women and children are looking forward to the festivities ahead. What made those festivities in the Christmas season so exciting? The Bram, of course. And what, might you ask, is the Bram?

The Bram is a spree traditionally done during the Christmas season. It is like an exodus of people dancing in the streets from one house to the next, the goal of which is to spread the merrymaking by singing, dancing and playing music at each house as a sign of good cheer. Traditionally, bramming occurred in Belize City (old Belize Town) and in the villages along the Belize River Valley; and later in most other Kriol (Creole) communities in Belize. As urban Belize City embraced less traditional Christmas celebrations, the bram became relegated to the countryside where it still relishes a critical presence.

The various Belizean cultures have their traditional music, and the Brokdong and bram are truly original of the Belize Kriol. Though the Brokdong can occur without the Bram, the Bram cannot occur without Brokdong music. The pulsating rhythms come from harmonizing a variety of instruments such as the fork and grater similar to the guira found in Merengue music, the two-sided Gombay drum reminiscent of the double-headed African dun dun drum, accordion, mouth organ (harmonica), banjo, jawbone of an ass (or donkey), the gourd shakka (maracas or rattle) and anything else that could make good musical sounds and could be heard loud and clear. Essential to the rhythm, percussion and syncopation of the Brokdong is the call and response songs narrating historical experiences in satirical fashion. The lyrics are in the Kriol (Creole) language which has a distinct African grammatical structure, with most words borrowed from English, and some from Irish, Mesquito Indian, Spanish and Maya. The concinnity of lilting verses heartily sung by the group and the instruments maintaining the beat cuts deep into your soul; and whether you are adult or child, Belizean or other, you are compelled to join in the celebration.

Over the years, the Brokdong genre has experienced a lull in its popularity among the youth. The same cannot be said for the over-forty crowd, which still jams to catchy beats of the King of Brokdong, Mr. Wilfred Peters and Punta Gorda native Ms. Leela Venon. This is especially true around the Christmas season and in rural Belize District where the two-day holiday is synonymous with the Bram.

Today, if you want to get a good dose of the Bram -- the way it used to be -- the place to visit is the village of Gales Point Manatee. The narrow, roughly two-mile stretch juts out into the Southern Lagoon bordering the Caribbean Sea at the base of the Belize District, about forty miles away from Dangriga through the Coastal Road. Cutting through the 2 miles of the village is a dusty unpaved and bumpy road, Main Street Gales Point, which is bordered by almost every building in the village, save for a few that fringe the lagoon on the east and west of the peninsula. Surrounded by wetland, marsh, and mangrove vegetation and imperial karst (limestone) hills, the lagoon around Gales Point Manatee is an important habitant for an estimated one hundred Antillean West Indian Manatees, which is why the area has been declared a Manatee Wildlife Sanctuary. But these mermaids are clearly not the reason that the Gales Point immigrants return home December 25 and 26 of every year.

The drama begins to unfold mid-afternoon on Christmas Day with the band members of the local band, Talla Walla Vibrations, drums in hand marching to the set starting point. This parade alerts everyone that the Bram is about to begin, so what starts off as a six-man parade turns into a lively crowd of villagers. Now remember the bramming energy has been in restraints for an entire year, so the excitement builds until the arrival at the first house when with one tap on the djembe drum the spectators/singers/dancers burst into life. Hips start with a fast side-to-side sway followed closely by knee bends done with simultaneous hip rotations. Shoulder movements suggestive of chickens flopping and the timed beats of a softer version of a foot stomp challenge nearby dancers to advance and then retreat according to the drum patterns. Above the high-pitched drum beats of the djembe drums, the clanking cow bell-type instrument, the bass of the dun dun drum relative, the clacking of a stick tapping on a pig tail bucket, the rattle of the maracas, and the knocking of glass bottles on wood, one can make out the feverishly-pitched tunes. One self-designated caller belts out words that stir the entire audience/performers to respond.

At each house, a table is laid out with home-made cashew and black berry wines, rum po po (egg nog), and aniseed liquor. Everyone is welcome in the sharing of drinks which heightens the frenzy of the moment and draws the more timid participants from the edge of the ring to inside the circle. A caution, of course, goes to those who are not used to these local drinks because it can go "right to your head", causing you to loose all inhibitions! For the revelers who grew up with these traditions, though, it is all a part of the kinship and merriment of the season. And so the euphoric atmosphere continues, non stop from house to house, from one end of village to the next, way into the night.

The experience can be summed up in the words one of the Brokdong songs:

Kriol

Translation

Pull out yu grater an di forkPull out your grater and the fork
Battl pahn tablBottle on table
Draw di kaakDraw the cork
Gimi di ridim, Gimi di sungGive me the rhythm, give me the song
Krismos di kom so gyada rungChristmas is coming so gather 'round
Get yu cake and yu lemonadeGet your cake and your lemonade
And don't forget the wine and the rumAnd don't forget the wine and the rum
Wine and go downWind and go down
All to the sound of the BrokdongAll to the sound of the Brokdong


Special Thanks to:

  • Gales Point Community
  • Ms. Ionie Samuels of Ionie's Bed and Breakfast
  • Emith Young of Talla Walla Vibrations and Methos Coconut Campground
  • Boombay of Talla Walla Vibrations
  • Nancy Hines of Manatee Lodge
  • Alita Gentle of Gentle's Cool Spot
  • Mr. Slusher
  • Mr. Joe Erales
  • Institute of Creative Arts (ICA) - National Institute of History and Culture (NICH)
  • Images Courtesy of:

  • Dreddi
  • Professor Ervin Beck - black and white image of Hubert Gardner, Belize City, 1978


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