By AP Rodrigues
Edited by Naturalight Productions Ltd.
"Are you here for the drumming?"
The little voice came out of the breezy night, and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see its owner clearly. A little boy was standing next to me, his smile as wide as a hammock strung between two palm trees.
"Yes," I replied. "Are you a drummer?"
"No, I'm a dancer!" he squealed enthusiastically and off he ran, all of three-and a half feet of him in dark, baggy shorts and a white t-shirt.
As it turns out, four-year-old Davis, the one-man welcoming band to the Lebeha Drumming Center, was both a dancer and a drummer.
My husband and I were tipped off to the Garifuna drummers of Hopkins one cold night as the snow swirled outside the frosted windows of our Toronto home. We were planning our fall vacation to Belize and posted a question on Belize Forums (www.belizeforum.com) about unique things families could do in and around Hamanasi Resort, the place where we would be staying, located about 3 hours south of Belize City. We had chosen Hopkins because of its central location between the barrier reef and inland rainforest, both a mere half-hour away. Someone who had recently returned from the area alerted us to the informal jam sessions that take place nightly in Hopkins, a traditional Garifuna fishing village near the resort.
Many weeks later, we find ourselves leaving Hamanasi just as the cool Caribbean breeze begins picking up in the early evening. Our destination is the Lebeha Drumming Center located about a mile up the coast on the north end of Hopkins. In tow is our not-quite two-year-old daughter, Madison or "Mady" for short.
We maneuver up the main street in our Kia Sportage rental vehicle, still dripping red mud from our daytime jaunt to the nearby Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Getting lost here is not very likely as one main paved road runs parallel to the long, sandy beach on the Caribbean Sea and smaller, sandy lanes branch off each side of the road. Surrounded by palm trees, canopies of mango trees and sprawling sea grape trees are older wooden clapboard houses with newer cement ones dotting both sides of the road.
"I wonder if she'll be frightened by the loud drumming." I voice my concerns to my husband who promptly reminds me that Mady had already taken part in some drumming sessions at her daycare, which shares the same building with a Canadian Native American daycare.
"If anything," he reminds me, "she will probably want to drum along."
The darkening road is teeming with villagers, walking and riding on bikes. Animated roadside conversations in Garifuna are paused momentarily as young children smile and wave as we pass. In no time we spot a small hand-painted sign with the words "Lebeha Drumming Center".
We park and that's when Davis pops out of nowhere only to disappear just as quickly. We follow in his direction and spot some lights in the darkness and head that way under the swishing of palm trees.
We find a man and a couple of kids sitting under the thatched roof of a large hut with a variety of drums and other instruments hanging above them. Jabbar Lambey greets us warmly and asks if we are there for the drumming. Dorothy Pettersen, originally from Vancouver, walks in with an armful of freshly laundered sheets. She runs the drumming center and small café with her husband Jabbar. I ask her what lebeha means and she says it means 'the end' and then she explains how it all began.
"Tourists staying in the village would ask where they could go to see Garifuna drummers and we would send them to Placencia, a coastal village two hours south of here. There wasn't anyone in the area doing this sort of thing so that's when Jabbar started the center."
"It has been operating for over a year to great success. Everyone is welcome regardless of finances as the center runs on donations and goodwill. Nothing is formally structured and so visitors and children drop by to perform or to listen and watch whenever they want."
After a short wait, some lanky teenagers and youngsters begin arriving. Some grab drums, one takes the turtle shells and another gets a hold of an empty conch shell. The drumming begins. The teenagers are playing on drums that were handmade by legendary Garifuna drum maker, Austin Rodriguez, from nearby Dangriga town. The drums are made of hollowed mahogany frames, cylindrical in shape and covered on one end with a piece of dried, smoothened deer hide fastened to the frame with a length of nylon rope or wire. The turtle shells were incorporated into punta rock music many years ago by famous Dangriga punta rocker and painter, Pen Cayetano. The conch shell is an unlikely wind instrument, so it surprised me to see one boy blowing into the hollowed shell creating a bassoon-like sound that accompanies the drumming.
Mady is on my lap and my feet are tapping away to the distinctive beat of the drum as if possessed. A few more dancers join Davis, but it is clear that he is the star dancer going from one side of the thatched hut to the other in large side swoops.
Suddenly one more child joins the group: Mady has broken free from my grip and joined in, trying desperately to follow the lead of the older kids. Alas, her inexperience is betraying her and her dancing comes out as jarring, awkward jabs instead of beat-matched grooves. Nevertheless, everyone cheers her on and from the look on her face she is feeling it, the heart and soul of Garifuna culture.
We say our goodbyes to our hosts and thank the young performers but Jabbar actually thanks us for coming and particularly for bringing our little girl. He explains the exchange of cultural experiences is what Lebeha is all about, especially when kids are the participants. They love it as they listen and watch with excitement as the drummers and dancers give them a candid, unrehearsed performance. They learn some groovy dance moves and in the process what is being passed on to their generation and future generations are the traditions of their ancestors.
In recent years the Garifuna culture was deemed a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). What we've experienced tonight at Lebeha is one aspect that makes this culture the masterpiece it truly is.
As we head out, the drumming begins again and the music follows us into our car and right to the outskirts of town as the stars shine brightly and the breeze blows coolly.