In April 2013 the band completed a short Canadian tour to Vancouver and Vancouver Island and will be back to Victoria in May 2014. They have competed in the annual invitational Battle of the Drums against other Central American Garifuna drum groups and won first place in 2011 and second place to Honduras in 2012. Their first CD, released under the innova label in 2003 was selected by the Academy as a contender in the Traditional World Music category of the Grammy Awards. They are still currently with innova.
Belize, formerly British Honduras, sits under the Central American sun surrounded on three sides by the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west, and Honduras to the south. The fourth side forms the largest coral reef in the Northern Hemisphere. Hugging the shores of the lapping Caribbean, the village of Hopkins is a sleepy string of fishing shacks, the home of approximately 1,000 Garifuna people. At the north end of the strip you will find a thatched shed in the sand, some tropical birds enjoying the fruit trees, and, every night, a dozen or so kids eager to show you their drumming and dancing skills (after lubing up with Baby Oil to fend off the hungry sandflies).
The Lebeha Drumming Center (“Lebeha” means “the end” in the Garifuna tongue) was started in 2002 by drummer Jabbar Lambey and Canadian Dorothy Pettersen. It is not a therapeutic drum circle, it is not the more commercial Punta Rock style (exemplified by stars such as Pen Cayetano and Andy Palacio), and none of the kids is forced to practice. If nobody shows up to listen or to dance, the boys play for themselves with just as much vigor as they would at a major festival. They carry with them the singular tradition that is Garifuna culture: a cocktail-shaker-full of African and South American Indian ingredients.
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.
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.