Garifuna Culture

The Garinagu (or Garifuna people) now live primarily along the coast from Belize to Honduras and Nicaragua. A storm in 1635 in the Lesser Antilles capsized two sailing ships carrying slaves from West Africa; primarily from Rivers State, Efiks, Calabaris in southeast Nigeria. Those who made it to shore on the island of St. Vincent began to mix with the Indian settlers; the Arawak and Red Carib people, who had migrated from Guyana and the Orinoco River area of Venezuela. By 1700 the British, Spanish and French colonialists sought to use their land for cotton and sugar plantations. These Red (and now Black-) Caribs withdrew to the mountains and a century of guerilla warfare ensued. Their defeat came in 1797 on Yurumein (Garifuna for the island of St. Vincent) when their chief, Joseph Chatoyer, died in battle and the British forcibly exiled 4,000 of them to nearby Becquia and Roatan Island, Honduras, many of them dying en route. Dissatisfied with these arrangements they let the Spanish take over the island and headed for the coast of Stann Creek, Belize, near present day Dangriga and Hopkins.

Their arrival up the river on November 19th, 1832 (led by Alejo Beni, after finding themselves on the losing side of a revolution in Honduras) is now celebrated as Garifuna Settlement Day when reenactments of costumed musicians on boats kicks off a season of festivities in the area. UNESCO recently proclaimed Garifuna culture a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", though this does little to help the hand to mouth daily existence of the people. Tourism and escape to the U.S. offer some consolation and money but there are few opportunities for the practicing masters of the tradition; some of the finest elder musicians are now more conversant with a bottle of rum than with a drum. Into this mixture come the wildly talented Lebeha Boys with the enthusiasm and hope of a new generation.

Instruments

The drums are made by Austin Rodriguez of nearby Dangriga from mahogany or mayflower wood with deerskin hides. They are tuned by ropes on the sides and are then placed in the sun. The Primero drum is also called the male drum because it has been birthed from inside the larger female, carved from the same log. The Primero drummer and lead singer, or Gayusa, directs the musical changes, shows the greatest virtuosity and calls the songs for the others' response. The drums are played by hand and the trick is to be able to play fast while keeping the tone strong; qualities that young Warren Martinez has in abundance.

The shakas contain seeds from a fruit tree inside a calabash gourd and the turtle shells are exactly that, strapped around the player's neck. There are no guitarists at Lebeha although guitars are often used in this style of music.