My love affair with Belize began in the late 90s, when my wife and I were in that interregnum between our wedding day and having kids, when it was still possible to travel with two cheap airplane tickets, our backpacks, joie de vivré and minimal itinerary. Back then, my sister-in-law was building sanitary facilities (i.e., toilets) for the Peace Corps in San Pablo Tacachico, El Salvador, a modest crossroads village in La Libertad, north of San Salvador, so we took one of several extended trips through Latin America to meet up with her in the fall of her second year there.
After our stay in Tacachico (the papusas! the soccer games on Sunday! the roosters in the back yard!), we traveled back on rickety buses to the capital and then up through Guatemala before turning eastward to Belize. Our first stop was the border town San Ignacio, a byway for itinerant travelers, where we explored caves and Mayan architecture before heading onward to our final destination, the southern beach town Placencia. Placencia is what off the beaten track is all about. During the summer and fall it is a one-school village on a sandy Caribbean lagoon, and after Christmas through the Spring it’s a destination for hardy tourists wanting sun and sand but willing to get off the grid a bit. Clean, breezy beach cottages go for mid-double digits, the seafood is good and cheap, the locals are gentle (the former British Honduras, Belize has never had it’s own military), the language is English, and the currency is pegged to the dollar, so changing money is not required. Follow the hand-painted signs to John the Bakerman for the best cinnamon rolls that’ll ever dissolve on your tongue, if he’s up for it.
Over the years, we discovered that the best time to visit Placencia is the week of Thanksgiving. The stormy season has ended by then but the tourists haven’t arrived, so we can get off-season rates and have the place mostly to ourselves and a handful of ex-pats. More often than not, this is where you’ll find us, having $10 lobster dinners in place of turkey on Thursday. The lagniappe of these trips is that this is also usually the week of the annual Garifuna Settlement Day.
You can read more about the remarkable Garifuna elsewhere. These noble folk, the “Black Caribs”, derived from escaped slaves who mixed peacefully with Native Americans in islands off the Western Caribbean nations before returning mainland to populate the lands of present-day Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and a few other areas. The Garifuna culture has (barely) survived near-misses more than once, and Garifuna Day salutes the remnants of this culture. The celebration is family-oriented, peaceful, full of vibrant indigenous clothing, and lots lots lots of drums.
In fact, of the three types of local music you are going to hear on a trip to Belize, one is the drums. Loosely based on a clavé, the rhythm is festive, insistent, and goes on and on and on. If you buy a CD in the Belize City Airport labeled “Garifuna”, it’s going to be these drums, maybe some chanted vocals over the top, and little else. (And if you are in the Belize City Airport, check out Jet’s Bar, run by my favorite sub-5-foot Belizian wise-ass.) Even the authentic Garifuna drumming is best appreciated in person; it’s hard to imagine anyone beyond the musicologically obsessive listening to a lot of this stuff for pleasure.
The second music you will be accosted by in Belize, over and over, is punta rock. Punta rock applies local rhythms to Caribbean pop music, and you’ll hear it all over Belize and Honduras, usually at beach bars in the late evenings. The locals live for the punta, you’ll see posters of the latest popular bands stuck up in public bathrooms, and you can dance to it in the sand. I’ve bought dozens of punta rock CDs through the years in various states of enrapturement from beach vendors, only to realize once back in the States that it’s usually full of synth-heavy cheese. Only the New York-based former punta teenie El Unico has gotten consistent play at home. I’m sure there is a great punta rock compilation out there, but someone else is going to have to find it.
The third strain of indigenous music you can find in Belize is a kind of folk-soul music I’ve rarely heard live, though reliably recorded and distributed internationally by Stonetree Records, the only record company in Belize. Stonetree is a subterfuge operation; their releases are recorded either in a studio near the aforementioned San Ignacio or in a shack on the beach in the tiny village of Hopkins, just north of Placencia. Ivan Duran is the life force behind Stonetree: owner, producer, auteur, international proselytizer. This music layers mostly acoustic accompaniment over pulsating Garifuna rhythms. The mood is in between Brazilian saudade and the chipper uptick of soca, and when you read the translations of the Garifuna lyrics into English, it’s easy to tell why. This is bleak stuff: bad love, death, exile, and cultural extinction are never far away.
I fell big for Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective’s Watina, released in 2007, like the rest of the small community of world music aficionados who pay attention to this stuff. Palacio’s story is the exalt of heros: a first class musician, a cultural historian, the most popular Belizian artist during his time. On Watina, Palacio joins a crew of the best Garifuna musicians, but rather than revisiting ossified genre exercises, he creates something new under the sun: an elastic groove, a realist’s world view, an unsentimental reflection on his ancestry. Palacio received accolades from the BBC and elsewhere for this recording, and was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2007. In terms of music, in terms of stature, it’s not a stretch to consider him the Bob Marley of Belize, and Watina fares well up against all but the Jamaican’s very best recordings. It even skanks a bit.
In 2008 Palacio died of a stroke at the age of 48, a musical giant felled in his prime, a Ronnie Van Zant moment. And that would seem to be that. But last year Duran got the Garifuna Collective back into the studio for a requiem, 2013’s Ayo, which means “goodbye”. The band jacks up the groove, adding keybs and guitar that wouldn’t be out of place on a Meters record—if the folkisms of Watina are displaced, neither does Ayo remotely resemble the canned corn of punta rock. Palacio’s vocals are sorely missed, but the (truly) collective singing (check out “Pamona”, which reminds you to save your money to buy a hammock) is stacked and intertwining and ever so slightly hip-hop. I’m not sure where this is all headed— the Stonetree Records clique is not a youth movement— but I’d take this jam over Buena Vista Social Club all day and all night long.