At the north end of Hopkins Village lies a community of drummers. They practice nightly, with or without an audience, and the cadence of their drums can be heard on the winds carried throughout the area. The depth of the Segunda bass drum is present, creating a constant echo that begins to mirror your heartbeat. While the wildness of the Primero tenor drum flies through the air telling the story of the sun setting. I imagine children lying in bed enjoying the breeze coming off the sea through open windows, while simultaneously being rocked to sleep by familiar rhythms they’ve heard since birth. I imagine these children eventually being lulled into deep slumber every night…except class nights.
Call the Lebeha Drum Center on any given day, and for a small fee ($10) they will allow you to schedule a private class in Garifuna Drumming. Having taken the course with a few of my colleagues here at Griots Republic, I can honestly tell you that no child fell asleep that night. That night we sat in a half arc facing Jabbar Lambey, one of the directors of the center and our teacher for the night. He patiently played, taught and counted out Garifuna beats such as the Punta, Paranda, and Chumba and in reply, we copied his actions noting that whatever parts of Africa we felt beat in our marrow didn’t make the trip to Belize with us. Embarrassingly enough, we’d lumbered into the open air center unpacking rhythm ranging from novice to hard of hearing; the worst of us being called “Becky” for the rest of the evening.
Garifuna drumming is not for the uncoordinated. The basic Punta, which consists of one hand hitting a constant beat while the second hand hits a double beat, is far harder than you can imagine. As someone who has danced for many years, I still found myself feeling like I was just being introduced to a tambourine while a Baptist church full of parishioners with their own tambourines were going in all around me. Why can’t I control my right hand?!
In hindsight, I’m positive that Jabbar has had worse students (I’m actually praying that he has had worse). He and his wife, Dorothy Pettersen, set up the center in 2002 with the sole purpose of continuing the traditional drumming that is Garifuna culture and in doing so, have reached far beyond the local students and children they teach daily. As such, his easy demeanor and ability to correct and guide us without missing a beat belie his 15 years of experience teaching tourists and guests at Lebeha. After a one hour private lesson, we left feeling challenged yet so jovial that we decided to return the following night.
The following evening we joined a much larger group of western tourists and were entertained by a full drum session, singing, dancing and a Hudut. A Hudut is a traditional Belizean Garifuna stew consisting of fish, garlic, okra, onions, coconut milk and of course, seasonings (because…us). The rich flavor was accompanied by cassava bread and fufu made from plantains. Like many cultures that live near the sea, the meal was a reflection of what is available in abundance and the skillsets ancestors from lands far beyond have left with their descendants. The Hadut, however, is said to be important to Garifunas because it demonstrates their love of the sea (fish) and coast (cassava). So for the price of a night out in Belize ($17) we sopped up the stew with the fufu and lazed around the center enjoying beers and chatting with attendees and locals.
That night we learned that Garifuna drumming culture is as much about the rhythm, or lack thereof, as it is about honoring a sense of community and carrying on tradition. In light of this knowledge, we eventually left full of both food and wisdom. And as we drove away, I could only imagine children lying in bed enjoying the breeze coming off the sea through open windows, thanking God that we were finally finished butchering rhythms they’ve heard since birth.