by Ifasina Efunyemi
Edited by Naturalight Productions
Dum, du-dum ... dum du-dum, is the rhythm of the drum that seems to be coming from across town. It is an insidious beckoning to become a part of the music. As you draw nearer, the drumbeats become more distinct and there is the rising accompaniment of "shingling" shells. Just Above the crowd you are approaching is the wild movement of brightly colored feathers that adorn the head of dancers you are yet to see. The urge to be a part of whatever is happening gets stronger.
It is early January, the end of the Christmas celebrations and the final phase of a forthnight of dancing culminating in Dia del Rey, observed January 6th (or the weekend closest to that date,) by the Garinagu. It is another activity that helps to validate Dangriga's self-imposed title, "The Culture Capital of Belize".
You know that the dancing of the Wanaragua or John Kunnu is drawing near when you see a young man here, a young boy there, gathering colorful feathers, assembling an attractive wababa (crown), or putting the finishing touches to the painted face masks that will be worn. You might be lucky to see a fully dressed dancer or two heading in the same direction as you, in search of the drums and their captivating rhythm. There is no one location to catch the dance as the whole idea is to move from one location to the other visiting, entertaining and celebrating the day with a growing entourage of onlookers. Wanaragua faithfuls will follow the colorful entourage from one end of the town to the other and to all neighbourhoods in between. The dance sometimes begins in the morning but usually in the early afternoon. The cooler the sun gets, the bigger the crowd grows.
Moving slowly to the front of the crowd you are suddenly faced with 5-10 costumed dancers wearing long sleeved white shirts, white gloves, knee length black pants and the occasional skirt, stockinged feet with black or white shoes. Green, pink or black ribbons criss-cross their chests and wrap their waist. At the knees, hundreds of tiny shells strung into knee pads make that "shingling" sound that accompany the dancer's every move. The heads are wrapped in colorful cloths and the face is covered with painted masks depicting the features of a Caucasian male. Crowning this ensemble is the wababas, an elaborate crown of colorful paper, flowers, mirrors, and tall colorful feathers with the red feathers from the Scarlet Macaw being the most prized. (It is against Garifuna tradition to kill the bird for its feathers so dancers hunt for feathers that the birds shed and leave behind.)
Inside the ring of onlookers is a loose circle of dancers awaiting their individual turns to perform, beginning with the youngest. With forearms extended, the incessant hypnotic movement of the dancer's feet match the rhythm and pattern of the two drummers. But it is the dancer's movement that dictates the drummers' beat and not the other way around. Paying keen attention, the drummers know when to pause, when to change the rhythm, and how to keep the flow. Each dancer brings his own unique style and flavor so the dancing is not repetitious. Audience participation and approval is sought with displays of grace, trademark moves and the occasional comical gestures.
Being a Wanaragua is serious business. The preparation is an elaborate one that culminates with a vibrant show of skill passed from one generation of males to the next. That's right, the occasional skirts that appear are men dressed as woman, the hiyanru. Women's roles are strictly as singers who may occasionally perform alongside the males as a temporary dance partner during the performance. The Wanaragua remains the star but the performance has other key players: the drummers, the singers and the flag man whose job it is to mark the homes that will be visited.
The ring of dancers is a paternal fraternity of men ranging in age and size from 3, 4, 5-year-olds, teenagers, middle-aged and grandfathers honing their skills from year to year to earn their place among the best. As some dancers will tell you, being a Wanaragua is a life long commitment whose guidance and training can be likened to a male's Rights of Passage. They take it so seriously that if life's challenges take them away from home, they will make it back to Dangriga year after year to dance, Dia Rey is the day traditionally for children to make their debut in the ring. In this year's celebration, one tiny dancer entering the ring for the first time marked the fifth generation of Wanaragua in the Flores family.
The John Canoe Parade in Jamaica, the Kome harvest festival of Sierra Leone, or the Junkanoo of the Bahamas have costumes and dance steps bearing some resemblance to the Wanaragua of Belize. It is said that these dances have their origins in the days of slavery and were intended to make fun of the white masters and their lack of rhythm. The Wanaragua has the added richness of the Garifuna history and culture. Celebrated throughout Belize but more commonly in the larger Garifuna settlements in the south, my favorite place to experience the celebrations is on the streets of the Culture Capital, beautiful Dangriga.
Special Thanks to:
Pelican Beach Resort
Allan "Chinney" Flores
Eustace "Bato" Serano
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography