1: Garifuna Groove: Where the Drumbeat Is the Heartbeat of the Culture

Local drummers (a few from the Lebeha Group) at one of their evening performances

Jabbar, master drummer in Hopkins Village, Belize

My hands come down on the once-soft animal skin, now stretched tightly over a tree trunk, producing a deep bass tone that momentarily takes me to West Africa.

The rhythm is  familiar to one I learned from a Guinean master drummer once—one that would call upon the spirits of the ancestors during certain types of celebrations.

Yet as I follow the lead of my teacher, master drummer Jabbar, I’m reminded of the fact that we’re on an entirely different continent, playing drums with Latin names. I’m laying down a bass line on a primero and he’s soloing on a primero, which has a higher sound.

Would They Jam with Me?

We wrap up my third and best lesson so far and I feel a longing to play more—to jam—with him or other drummers. Would they stick to set rhythms or perhaps break out? Would they want to play with me, a white woman?

I’d been trained to play West African style, where the protocol and etiquette tend to be strict. The men run the show and women—especially non-Africans just learning—generally follow their lead. It’s a world where you must be humble and know your place in the hierarchy; one doesn’t just ask to ‘jam’. Here though, in Hopkins Village, I wonder if it might be allowed.

Maybe later, I think. I grab a drink to stay hydrated in the coastal heat and look over at the turquoise water of the Caribbean and the sun, which will soon be setting. I’d almost like to go and take a swim.

Mama, Garifuna Historian and Cultural Preservationist

But instead,  in a few minutes, I’ll be riding my slightly rickety one-speed bike down the street over to Jude’s seafood restaurant. I’m craving fresh snapper and fries—and more importantly, a chat with her and ‘Mama’, a heavyset black woman with a warm, yet intense eyes. She’s a historian and town elder of sorts, who loves to talk about her culture….their culture. That of the Garifuna.

Where Am I?

Am I in Africa? No.

Latin America? Yes, technically.

But Hopkins Village, Belize, which is a bit off the beaten path, feels like something else—a world in between the two. It’s one of several places in this country where one finds the Garifuna, descendants of ship-wrecked slaves, and their unique culture.

Hopkins Village: A Small Town Off the Beaten Path

Hopkins is a small town where everybody knows everybody. English is spoken, as well as tribal Garifuna, and some Creole, as well. And there’s Spanish, of course—although I didn’t hear much of it. Located in Southern Belize, Hopkins is off the beaten path, with some tourists (but not too many—back in 2008 anyway) and ex-pats and welcoming locals.

“We are Garifuna and we want to preserve our culture,”  says ‘Mama,’ who seems to be at the center of the cultural preservation. She looks serious as she speaks. “It’s very important for us to keep it alive.”

At dinner, while enjoying enjoying snapper and fresh crab that I saw one of the locals catch during the day, Mama extends a special invitation to me and my traveling companion, Krista, to attend a special cultural night. We immediately accept.

Jude’s seafood restaurant

Two hours later, we’re sitting in a large room with about 100 people, learning even more about the Garifuna and who they are.

Moving Beyond Words and Into the Music

But, as one soon sees, experiencing the heart of this culture is only partially about the words. It’s mostly about the music—the drums, the dancing and the traditions—and the sense of aliveness they bring.

The door opens and a procession of dancers, including Miss Belize 2007 (who was Garifuna), enter  the room and the party begins. Two drummers, local teenagers, begin to play a rhythm whose groove makes people in the audience (me included) want to dance while it simultaneously brings on a slight trance. The dancers begin to move and the fun begins.

And hour later, I’m smiling inwardly and on outwardly. It’s felt amazing to watch. I then get a giddy feeling, which I sometimes get when I know there’s something I want/need to do that might be amazing if it happens.

“Um….hi. Great job tonight. Loved the music you made,” I say to the two drummers. They’re teenagers, possibly brothers or maybe just close friends.

“Thank you,” they say, still tapping. I sense they might want to keep playing. Meanwhile, people are clearing out of the room. Perhaps it’s now my chance.

The Drumbeat + the Heartbeat = a Door Into the Culture

“Would it be OK if I try your drum? I’ve taken some lessons with Jabbar and know a couple rhythms,” I say nervously. I prepare myself for a possible ‘no.’

“Yes, of course,” he says, smiling and moving his seat. “Let me find another drum, so all three of us can play.”

Soon, I’m playing the segundo, the large drum, with these Garifuna kids and feeling connected to them in a different way than I did when I was just listening. Together, we share musical moments and create them for others to enjoy.

I’m now a bit blissed out and don’t notice that a small crowd is forming around us. We’re playing one of the rhythms I learned earlier in the day and it’s getting good. (Unfortunately, due to a weak camera battery, I have blurry photos, which I can’t post.)

“I also play African,” I say to one of the boys after we finish the song and the people around us applaud. “Would you like to try and make up some of our own stuff—you know, jam?:

“Yes, let’s try it,” the older boy says, nodding enthusiastically. “Show us something African!” I’m relieved that they—the Garifuna—are easygoing and more flexible than the West Africans I’ve played with. I show them the rhythm and they quickly pick it up since it’s so similar to theirs.

I then change what I’m doing, making the rhythm my own, so to speak. I create a layer, which they jump into, and then I layer over it. Our unique connection deepens in that certain unique musical way and I feel grateful.

‘Are you a Garifuna?’

Soon, there are about 15 people standing around us, smiling. The groove picks up and the music takes us to another place—the undeniable heartbeat that one hears and feels as part of the drumbeat. And I’m happily in the moment.

Watching is good, but playing along is even better.

“I see you’re a white girl, but are you a Garifuna?” one of the other boys says, laughing. “I think you’re from Belize…you can play our drums!”

I smile, feeling completely blissed out by what he said and the unique connection we’re sharing. “No, I’m just an American who likes to drum and happens to love your drums!”

We finish our jam and say goodbye and I feel full of joy, the kind one gets from connecting through music and culturally. I know I’ve traveled in the truest sense of the word from the heartbeat into the drumbeat…and back again.

And to this day, I’m still grateful for visiting—and being welcomed into—the Garifuna culture. I thank the Garifuna people, of course, and their ancestors–the people of Africa.

Click here for part 2 of this series, which includes a slide show set to music played by the Garifuna of Hopkins.

How About You?

Have you taken any music lessons while visiting another country? What was it like? Have you ever been to a place like Hopkins Village, where there’s a unique cultural hybrid that makes you feel like you’re in two different countries at the same time? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.

These are the Lebeha Drummers jamming outside (video credit is not mine). Enjoy!

Link Luv

 

Lebeha Drumming Center: This is where I took my lessons from Jabbar, the master drummer. When I was there, performances were held once-weekly.

Garifuna Music: Explanation and history of the music of this culture.

Welcome to Hopkins Village: The official website of the village, created by the Garifuna people themselves. Includes information about food, lodging and tours.

35 Responses to 1: Garifuna Groove: Where the Drumbeat Is the Heartbeat of the Culture
  1. Aaron
    December 26, 2010 | 10:06 pm

    What an awesome experience! Can’t say that I’ve taken any music lessons overseas. And does seeing very ethnic neighborhoods in cities count?
    Aaron recently posted..Photo Essay- Christmas in the DesertMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 12:05 am

      Thanks, Aaron…glad you enjoyed the post! Seeing ethnic neighborhoods definitely counts as there’s usually some very cool music and culture happening there.

  2. Sprite
    December 26, 2010 | 11:10 pm

    CB, I remember distinctly a time I heard your drumming and it was magical – and healing, and sensuous and very very hypnotic. Thank you for sharing this with us here! Another awesome blog :)

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 12:08 am

      Hello, Ms. Sprite. I remember that time, too. It was incredible! And to think that we had just a few small drums and were still able to make the kind of music that we made. I really enjoyed the dancing that took place during the jam, too. The perfect combination. Glad we were able to share it!

  3. Steve Collins
    December 26, 2010 | 11:17 pm

    Ah, the role of the drum. A musical instrument almost as primeval as the human voice. All tribal cultures have used variants. Thank you for capturing the fascination of the drum so eloquently.

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 12:14 am

      Hi, Steve….thanks for stopping by and for your kind words! It sounds like you might have some experience with drumming and if so, cool! Have you been to drum circles? There was a time when it was a huge part of my life and one of my greatest passions. Unfortunately, some serious tendonitis led me to cut back. I still play sometimes (cajón and frame, as well as flute), but not as much African (djembe) as I used to.

      Drumming truly is primeval, as you said, and is one of the main reasons I find these types of cultures so fascinating. Glad you checked out the post and I hope you like what’s coming next: photos (perhaps an essay) and tips for enjoying Hopkins. Thanks!

  4. TravelnLass
    December 27, 2010 | 3:56 am

    Ah yes, Hopkins village. Though I don’t drum (indeed sadly, apparently don’t have a shred of musical DNA), I’ve surely spent a good deal of time in that little corner of the world. Started my own tour company guiding trips to Belize way back in the 80′s (when few had even HEARD of Belize).

    Special memories of Hopkins and the dear Garifuna, as well as Gales Point just north of there. I went to see the manatee (amazing) but even more memorable – gliding by boat after dark through a tunnel of mangrove along the “River of Fire” – the phosphorescence in the water there is incredible.

    Thanks for reviving 20+ yr. old memories!
    TravelnLass recently posted..Photo of the Week- San Blas Islands Kuna LassMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 12:55 pm

      Hi, TravelinLass! So cool that you spent some serious time in Belize and know the Garifuna. Wow! Love that you actually had a tour company there and back when it was not very developed…

      Gales Point sounds familiar, but I’m not sure if I made it there. The ‘River of Fire’ sounds like my cup of tea! I do recall riding a bike near Hopkins and seeing some really serious nature that was super trippy (may post that in a photo essay re: Belize).

      Glad you stopped by and that this brought back memories for you. Thank you.

  5. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_
    December 27, 2010 | 11:35 am

    This post is SO amazing! That’s so exciting that you got to jam with them… an artist in China let me paint with him… it’s a surreal feeling. He showed me traditional techniques, I was only somewhat familiar with a bamboo brush and ink. (You wouldn’t know from my last ‘paint’ post, but I do have some art training haha)
    Now I wanna take up the drums though!
    Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ recently posted..My Entry for Travel Photography Roulette- BeachesMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 12:58 pm

      Thanks, Lindsay! It was exciting–such a cool opportunity. Wish my camera had been working…would have been nice to share the pics. What you did, painting with the Chinese artist, sounds great. I loved your last post, btw. I see the artistic skill there!

      (Stay tuned for Part 2 of this serious where I show people what they can do in Hopkins and how to do it.)

      Hope you do have the opportunity to take a drumming workshop sometime. I think you’d enjoy it! Any questions–just ask.

  6. Iain Mallory
    December 27, 2010 | 3:23 pm

    Great post. It is obvious you really enjoyed everything about your stay and felt a connection to the people, the music helping you integrate into the culture.

    Thank you for transporting me there.

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 10:39 pm

      Thanks, Iain! I did truly enjoy the 4 days I spent there. The cultural connection via music was very special. Glad you felt transported there…awesome!!

      PS: There’s one little thing I did not mention here that happened that wasn’t so good. The final night, I was bitten by sand flies. Never even saw them. But that’s a story for another time! :)

  7. Erica
    December 27, 2010 | 8:58 pm

    I am a drummer and I fell in love with the video you posted. I can just imagine grooving my way through Belize. How awesome that you got to take drumming lessons while on your adventure. Sounds like it spoke to your soul!
    Erica recently posted..Travel Vaccines – The More You KnowMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2010 | 10:41 pm

      Hi, Erica! You’re a drummer? Awesome. Do you play djembe? Or the kit? Or something else? There’s nothing quite like it, is there? I also play flute and really enjoy it, but…it’s not quite like the drums (for me).

      I love how you put that–that the experience ‘spoke to my soul.’ Yes! I thank you for visiting my site and for reading this story….appreciate it!

      • Erica
        December 27, 2010 | 10:44 pm

        I play a kit. :P I totally understand how the drums can speak to someone. :)
        Erica recently posted..Travel Vaccines – The More You KnowMy Profile

        • CB Driver
          December 28, 2010 | 6:19 pm

          The kit? NIce. I admire anyone who can multi-task that way. I took lessons for a few months and struggled with that a little bit. But it really helped me with the intricate rhythms on the hand drums. Anyway…cool that you’re into the ‘language of the drum.’ It’s definitely a special one!

  8. Rebecca
    December 28, 2010 | 12:10 am

    Wow, what an amazing experience! I can just imagine the buzz you got from doing it! I haven’t had any musical lessons overseas, but I did sing with a Zulu choir at one of their concerts in South Africa this year – was amazing and I still recall the high I was on afterward!
    Rebecca recently posted..Photo of the Week- The Mighty Murray- AustraliaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 28, 2010 | 4:13 pm

      Hi, Rebecca. Yes, it was amazing…wish I’d had more time to spend there. I love what you did, by the way…singing with a Zulu choir…wow! I wonder what that was like. Was it hard to pronounce the words? Or did it sort of flow for you? Whatever the case, I could imagine that being meditative somehow. How cool that you did it at a concert!!

      Thanks for coming by and sharing!

      • Rebecca
        December 29, 2010 | 5:08 pm

        I actually didn’t sing in Zulu (my Zulu is limited to hello, how are you etc!) – we did Stand By Me, with the choir doing the “bom bom ba da bom bom” in the background and singing the chorus. Fun fun fun!!

        • CB Driver
          December 29, 2010 | 7:13 pm

          Did you? How cool!! Do you have any photos and/or a post that you wrote about it? If so, I’d love to see it…

          • Rebecca
            December 29, 2010 | 7:31 pm

            I haven’t written a post about it but I do have some pics… and a video! Will have to write something… eek!
            Rebecca recently posted..Photo of the Week- The Mighty Murray- AustraliaMy Profile

          • CB Driver
            January 1, 2011 | 8:00 am

            Great. I look forward to seeing that post. Let me know when you’ve done it and I’ll stop by and check it out! :)

  9. Red Nomad OZ - Adventures in Australia
    December 28, 2010 | 12:58 am

    I taught for a year (many years ago) in Papua New Guinea, and I’d get goosebumps from the rhythms and harmonies of the school’s a capella choir! Tragically, my musical ‘ability’ wouldn’t have got me to the ‘actually joining in’ stage!! So great you had that wonderful experience!

    Happy travels!!

    PS Just LOOOOOVE your blog name!!
    Red Nomad OZ – Adventures in Australia recently posted..Aussie Icons 1 – Largs Pier Hotel- Largs Bay- South AustraliaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 28, 2010 | 4:18 pm

      Hi, Red Nomad! You taught in Papua New Guinea? No way. That is a dream of mine–to go there, that is! And an a cappella choir sounds truly amazing. Do you recall what they were singing about? Did they also dance? Just wondering.

      Glad to hear that you like my blog’s name…awesome! I thought long and hard about it before committing to it. And now that the bus is about is almost 5 months old and I see where it’s heading, I think it’s just right. Thank you! :)

  10. Brendan van Son
    December 28, 2010 | 11:03 am

    Lisa, I spent time here about 5 years ago and I loved it as well. You have a great writing style, this was a great read. Thanks for sharing
    Brendan van Son recently posted..The Boy and His Skipping StoneMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 28, 2010 | 4:24 pm

      Hi, Brendan. Did you really? In Hopkins? How cool. Glad you enjoyed it there, too. Definitely a special sort of place…

      I appreciate your positive feedback re: my writing style…thanks! I’ve been working on my travel memoirs for a couple years (75% finished) and have been a bit stuck lately (since I started my site in August). I’m now thinking and hoping that this story, which I just wrote a few days ago (and not necessarily for the book, but now I’m thinking that it could be), helped me get unstuck. Thank you.

      • Brendan van Son
        December 28, 2010 | 4:27 pm

        My pleasure. Lisa, when ever I’m stuck a bit (I’m writing 2 novels at the moment), I head off to somewhere that no one can find me. It forces me to be alone with my thoughts. I bring just a pen and paper, it always works without fail. Although, I’ll admit, sometimes it leads to different inspiration like 18 random thoughts while hiking Torres del Paine.
        Brendan van Son recently posted..The Boy and His Skipping StoneMy Profile

        • CB Driver
          December 28, 2010 | 6:16 pm

          Two novels? Wow! That sort of escape into solitude can definitely work nicely–no Twitter to distract you (maybe I need that!). :) And I hear you re: how one can end up being led off in a different direction. That often happens to me when I’m out in nature. Sometimes my mind becomes flooded with ideas, which I have to write down right away. The challenge is when it’s beyond ideas and more like actual sentences or paragraphs; at these times, I have to use my computer for a while, then resume hiking. (Perhaps it means I’m going to have to buy a MB Air or an iPad soon!)

          I could totally see that happening in the Torres del Paine, which looks like an incredible place to re-ignite the creative spark. I have not been there, but I’ve heard and seen from photos (including yours) that it’s lovely…

  11. Steve
    December 28, 2010 | 12:24 pm

    What a great and unique experience. I’m glad you got a jam session in with them – I bet you really felt connected with them. I loved Belize when I was there too; it is such a wonderful country to see.
    Steve recently posted..Making New Year’s Resolutions WorkMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      December 28, 2010 | 4:26 pm

      Steve–thank you! It was really cool to jam with them. I was pleasantly surprised that we did. And that’s a unique connection to have shared, one that I’ll cherish for a long time. Awesome that you’ve also been to Belize and found it wonderful. Sounds like there are quite a few of us in that category! :)

  12. Sabina
    December 29, 2010 | 8:55 am

    That is a really cool and unique way to interact with another culture – music. I can see why that created powerful memories for you.

    • CB Driver
      December 29, 2010 | 9:09 am

      Hi, Sabina. Yes, it was unique! Would love to do it again sometime or maybe learn the Garifuna language (or go to Africa and learn a language there). Could be cool, too. Thanks!

  13. susan
    January 6, 2011 | 9:44 am

    Unfortunately, I have never been to Hopkins Village. However, I was born and raised in Uganda, a country that takes pride in its culture. I have had a chance to play a few traditional instruments such as the drums. Playing drums is another form of meditation and relaxation. It’s a very exciting and fun experience, and I felt it just from reading your amazing story and watching the videos. Thank you ever so much for the post.

  14. jack lowry
    January 20, 2012 | 11:19 am

    Wow! what energy! the sea seems a little angry though. I like how they all finish together and then just stay still, like in a meditation!~

    • CB Driver
      January 23, 2012 | 4:12 pm

      Yes, they had great energy…and it was wonderful to play with them. Agree re: the sea–at that moment, anyway. Cool scene there in Belize…

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