The music of Belize is a diverse reflection of the people. Belize is the definition of a proverbial melting pot with a rich blend of Garifuna, Maya, Creole, and Mestizo people. Undoubtedly, the music of the Garifuna dominates the airwaves and dance halls.
The Garifuna culture prominently displays African heritage. When compared to the indigenous music of African societies, it is evident that the captured slaves brought the music of their ancestors. Historians believe that slaves brought to Belize were taken from Nigeria, Congo, and Angola. The music of these cultures is typically in a call and response pattern. Garifuna music relies heavily on this style with the leader/chorus organization.
The drum has a starring role in Garifuna music. In many instances, the music is dictated by it. The drumming style calls for two drummers, except in the case of sacred drumming, which calls for three. One drummer will play in a fixed pattern; this drummer is called the Segundo player. The primero player will improvise melodically in made up cross patterns.
The ends of the Garifuna drums are covered with the dried skin of the deer or sheep. Musicians accompany drum sets with guitars, violin, accordion, banjo and the flute. Immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico; the Mestizos introduced the marimba and double bass to the Garifuna drums.
There is no shortage of musical expression in Belize. Cumbia, similar to salsa and merengue, is widely played by troupes in areas populated by the Mestizos. Brukdown, is a more melodic form of calypso. The eclectic mix of instruments includes a donkey’s jawbone, banjos, and drums. The introduction of electric guitars and congas has modernized brukdown to boom and chime. Brukdown is performed in Kriol and originated during slavery. Loggers would gather under the cover of the night to enjoy drumming, dancing and chanting.
Unlike, the Creole, the Garifuna were never enslaved and their music is a rich cultural blend. The Garifuna are descendants of slaves and native Caribs. This cultural merger occurred when displaced Africans formed unions with the Carib Indians. As a result, the Garifuna never experienced the stigma associated with African slaves. They started arriving in Belize in 1802 after fleeing violent persecution in Honduras. The Garifuna were a free people and their settlement in a land where the African population was enslaved was a predicament to the ruling slave owner class.
Traditional punta music was developed by Garifuna musicians. Dancing is just as important as the music itself. Traditionally, punta is performed at major festivities, like wakes, parties and Junkanoo performances. In a Junkanoo (also spelled Jankunu) dance, participants dress up and make fun of the slave owners in a kind of dance parody. Junkanoo performances have direct links to West Africa and are still performed across the Caribbean.
Punta had a baby and parsimoniously named it punta rock.
Punta rock is uniquely Belizean and is perhaps the most popular music in the country. The lyrics are more risqué, as women are directed to gyrate and move their bodies sensually as men look on. Described as “soca with a twitch” punta rock is rooted in the Garifuna call and response pattern. The musical genre has traveled to neighboring countries. Musicians agree that punta rock was born in the 1980’s when they began putting a guitar, synthesizer, and bass to birth the music.
The deeply soulful paranda music is another creation of the Garifuna people. Heavily led by guitars and drums, the music is making a comeback among the young people. Lead by Paul Nabor, a world-renowned parandero artist. The lyrics always tell a story about the human experience over a steady melody.
Undoubtedly, music and dance styles are an integral part of Belize’s culture. The songs and dances performed cover and display a wide range of subjects that deal with social, work and ancestral traditions. Each major cultural group is known for a particular musical genre, but all are accepted widely.