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Mr. Peters Meets the Garifunas

Belize has two sure-fire ways to get your musical juices flowing
By The News · 04 of August 2017 09:15:05
Mr. Peters’ Boom and Chime band was an international phenomenon, No available, photo: Wikipedia

WANDERLUST

Planning a trip to Belize? If so, don’t forget to bring your dancing shoes, because this little country has two sure-fire ways to get your juices flowing – musically, that is. One is called brukdown (meaning broken down calypso), and the other is a peppy booty-shaker tagged punta (from an African word not surprisingly meaning butt).

Both have long histories packed with tales of mahogany logging camps in Belize’s steaming jungles, an accordion player from the camps who wound up honored by Queen Elizabeth, a lively wake-up song (almost as popular as the country’s national anthem) played at the crack of dawn by dozens of radio stations, and shipwrecked slaves who swam to a nearby Caribbean island (and stumbled across all kinds of ways to piss off their English landlords).

Remembering Mr. Peters

Not too long ago there were boom and chime bands all over Belize, a speck on the map just south of the Yucatan. If you managed to get down there before 2010, you likely heard the country’s top boom band — led by the iconic accordionist/singer Wilfred Peters — batting out tunes at parades, festivals, parties and miscellaneous jump-ups.

You’ll still hear budding boom and chimers here and there, but seven years ago the last of the genre’s old-time heavy hitters bit the dust when Peters slipped away at 79 to that big dance hall in the sky.

Peters’ chief sideman was a drummer who beat one side of his drum with a mallet to make a booming sound. The other side had a metal rim, which he hit with a hollow metal stick to make a chiming sound. Hence, boom and chime.

Among other instruments in the band — think Cajun zydeco with a tropical flavor — were guitars, a banjo, bongo and conga drums, maracas and a donkey’s jawbone scratched with a stick.

Their songs featured the country’s homegrown and still popular mishmash of African, Latin and Caribbean music called brukdown. It goes back centuries to the days when Belize — formerly British Honduras — was home to escaped slaves, out-of-work pirates (during hard times on the Spanish Main), Black Carib indigenous people kicked off the Grenadines, Maya refugees from the Caste War in Mexico, Garifuna farmers evicted from an offshore island, people whose faces were on “Wanted” posters in a half-dozen languages and others who came to camps in the country’s steaming hot jungles to chop down forests of precious mahogany trees.

Fast-forward to the late 1960s, and three musically talented Belizean youngsters — accordionist Peters, a drummer and a guy playing a beat-up guitar — got together to form a creole band at first called The Mahogany Chips. According to Peters’ biography, they raked in the equivalent of $5 a gig plus all the rum-and-cokes they could down.

Their creole tunes eventually morphed into brukdown, and as more band members came on board, they changed the group’s name to Boom and Chime. They became so popular over the years in Belize and on worldwide tours that Queen Elizabeth honored Peters with an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

A sort of Belizean Bob Marley, Peters — known as Mr. Peters, the King of Brukdown — may be best remembered for his cheery wake-up song “Good Mawnin’ Belize,” once heard at the crack of dawn on radios in homes across the country.

Among his many other chart-toppers, “Run Fu Yu Life,” about Mr. Peters’ narrow escape from a lady’s husband, blew rooms away on the band’s world tours from Belfast to Barcelona.

Like hula dancing on steroids

If you’re lucky enough to be vacationing in Belize on Nov. 19, you’ve got a probably unexpected treat in store. That day is the country’s Garifuna Settlement Day, a national holiday celebrated by thousands of local folks dancing in the streets to the Garifunas’ booty-shaking punta music.

You’re welcome to get into the swing of things at punta-livened parades, parties and sing-alongs in bars.

Belizean dancers get into the swing of Garifuna. Photo: The News/Bob Schulman

So, what’s a Garifuna? Arguably — there are several versions of the story — their origin goes back to the 1630s when a Spanish slave ship from Nigeria sunk off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. It’s said a good number of the slaves somehow got out of their chains and swam to St. Vincent, at the time mainly the home of Carib indigenous people.

A century of intermixing went by, and the offspring of the ex-slaves and the Caribs became known at first as Black Caribs and later Garifunas — the latter believed to be from Garinagu, a local name for the Black Caribs.

Meanwhile, French settlers and the English crown slugged it out for control of the island in seemingly endless battles. The Brits won, and in 97, they deported the Garifunas (who’d been chummy with the French) to Roatan, one of Honduras’ offshore islands. There, politics raised its head, and the Garifunas wound up migrating to the Honduran mainland, where they got on the wrong side of a civil war. Many were forced to move again, this time to spots in neighboring Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

The first dugout canoe of the Garifunas arrived in Belize on Nov. 19, 1832. Thus, the settlement holiday.

One of the country’s largest settlement celebrations draws merry-makers from across Belize to the town of Dangriga, site of the Garifunas’ landing 135 years ago. Located about halfway down the country’s Caribbean coast, the usually quiet little city goes bonkers during a week-long festival leading up to Settlement Day. Among highlights of the week are round-the-clock carousing and parades to the booming drums and blasting brass of punta music, the crowning of Miss Garifuna and an annual bike race.

There is a recreation of the Garifuna landing on Nov. 19. Photo: The News/Bob Schulman

The big day on Nov. 19 kicks off with a recreation of the Garifuna landing in dugout canoes full of authentic cargoes of cooking pots, drums, cassava roots (from a woody shrub used to make a tapioca-like dish) and young banana trees. After that, the paddlers are joined by throngs of spectators for a lively procession down Dangriga’s streets followed by a special church service and then partying and dancing through the night.

Normally home to about 10,000 people, the city — known as the cultural capital of Belize — swells to as many as 35,000 during the celebration.

A tip to tourists planning a trip to Dangriga for the settlement fest: Book early, because the town only has a half-dozen hotels. Another 17 hotels (starting at $28 a night at the Funky Dodo Backpacker) are some 8 miles down the coast at the Garifuna village of Hopkins.

 THE NEWS