Before television came to Punta Gorda in the early 1980s, and before the later fixation of the town’s youths on technological gadgets in this new millennium, there was a vibrant, creative and expressive social environment that nurtured a number of musical talents.
Interestingly, these talents emerged through a distinctly parallel social context within the community. Those who were formally educated tended to distance themselves from their own traditional expressions. Teachers and their families were conservatively Roman Catholic, spoke the Queen’s English, recited Western poetry, and preferred church hymns and Euro American based music. Through their jobs and families they perpetuated the same, resulting in a loss of their language and traditions among their children. They were groomed to be transplanted away from their roots.
At church services, elders harmoniously sang with their earnest faith that this would assure their space in heaven. At school, if students were not singing hymns, teachers delighted in teaching Mary had a little lamb, Yankee Doodle Went to Town, Skip to my Lou My Darling, On Top of Old Smokey, Dashing through the Snow and other such songs. In our lush, green, tropical, Caribbean kissed small town, children were taught to be “dreaming of a white Christmas”.
Schools were not the place to appreciate and celebrate one’s culture. In fact, some nuns used to strictly forbid and whipped children for speaking their ancestral language. To be accepted as educated, one had to negate his or her identity to become part of a mainstream monoculture. A certain covert discriminatory social environment still exists at elitist church schools, thus leaving Garifuna or indigenous Maya students to quietly endure the mockery of their identity and culture by condescending fellow students. Deliberate actions to change this status quo are long overdue.
Punta Gorda folks who were not fettered by the formal education system became the real anchors and transmitters of their traditional culture. They were the ones who spoke and taught their language to their children. They were not inhibited to express their culture at home or publicly. From them flowed the variety of spontaneous, joyous, or sacred traditional expressions through drums and voices of ancestral music. The railing of priests or the educated failed to stop the dügü. In the 70s, PGs parandero Paul Nabor and the late Mrs. Mamaya Nunez and their group, were very popular for their lively house to house serenading with Garifuna music around Christmastime.
There were also creative children who constructed their own guitars from fishing lines strung tightly across discarded powdered milk tins placed over the midsection of a weathered piece of wood. They sang their hearts out as they strummed chordless clinking but rhythmic Garifuna music on their homemade guitars. Discarded laundry tubs or lard cans served as drums. Older PG folks will remember the exuberant performances of the Manteca Combo comprised of rebel-like primary school age boys, in the early 1970s.
On festive occasions there were regular dances at the Venus dance hall with the Celestials Combo or Wild Cats playing American, Caribbean and Latin music. Players included Eden Martinez as lead singer and organist, Fabian Martinez, Leigh Usher and Ivor Cacho on saxophones, Bernard “B” Arzu on guitar, John “Muchanto” Sanchez on drums, and Robert Castro as backup singer. Those nights always ended with a medley of “souls” that wrapped partners in airtight squeeze slow dancing. The communion that some took at Mass earlier would have long been digested and forgotten. The innocent danced May pole.
Within this sort of parallel social structure, P.G. Claver College (a Jesuit high school), in the 1970s and 80s, provided an unprecedented fertile environment from which grew a number of otherwise hidden music talents among the youth. Lynam College in the Stann Creek District had recently closed and the transfer of Jesuit priests Frs. Francis Ring and Urban Kramer from there to PG brought a fresh dynamism to the school. They also brought a brand new modern Yamaha organ, fully loaded – double keyboard, foot bass pedal and multiple sound and percussion controls. I was fascinated to see such a modern instrument and immediately longed to play. I was in first form then.
A few years earlier, when I was about eight years old, my younger sister Violet and I had taken piano classes with Mrs. Eugenia Avilez nee Noguera, as my father had arranged. Mrs. Avilez, a uniquely genteel, church-going, English-speaking, elderly Garifuna widow, exposed me to a world that was very different from the afterschool boyhood activities I enjoyed with my peers. She was meticulous; keen on teaching as much as possible. We quickly learned to play. As Ms. Avilez insisted, each class ended with the singing or playing of Belize’s colonial anthem, God Save the Queen. Disappointedly, within two years, these classes were discontinued due to family illness.
Three years later my musical interest received a life-changing boost. One evening as I keenly observed Fr. Ring during his solitary practice on the new organ he asked, “You want to try.” Excitedly, I played God Save the Queen. Fr. Ring was least impressed; the church was no place for that. For a few months after, he provided basic training that enabled me to use both hands to simultaneously play both upper and lower keyboards as well the accompanying bass and volume control pedal on my left and right foot respectively. He gave me special access to the organ key to practice whenever I wanted – a privilege that no other youth had then. By the end of first form I was playing for school and Sunday Masses.
It might have been a deliberate plan of Frs. Ring and Kramer that some of the new teachers recruited the following year came with quite a concentrated mix of professional music backgrounds never seen at the school before or since. African American volunteer, Mr. Kennedy was a Science teacher, but he mesmerized us with his organ skills. Literature teacher Emory Whipple, a Ph.D. ethnomusicology candidate who was conducting field research on Garifuna music, was a superb professional trap set drummer. Ironically, this American researcher was the only teacher to encourage the appreciation of our traditional music. Soon after I learned to play the Garifuna drums, which the school would later use for Masses. Mr. Whipple’s wife Laura, who taught English, trained the school choir. (Andy Palacio became close friends of his teachers, the Whipples.) Literature teacher Ms. Jenny Lovell, the star singer of Frankie Reneau’s, famed Mass in Blues, also taught singing; her angelic voice, captivating. Math teacher Mr. Albert Williams was an expert guitarist from whom I learned to play. All these teachers volunteered their time outside of their full teaching schedule, to teach and mentor budding student musicians to play the organ, drums, guitar and recorder. A dynamic sports program, including boxing taught by Fr. Coombs, had also begun.
The first school band was formed with those teachers and me, the student. Even the teachers, along with Principal Kamela Palma, formed their singing group. The students’ and teachers’ choir rocked. Masses gained a joyous new energy. On social nights students were encouraged to play whatever instrument they could – even old buckets.
Students’ became increasingly interested in being part of the school band and choir. Talents that emerged included Len Cayetano and Andy Palacio on guitar and voice, Jeffrey Zuniga on bass guitar and Douglas Williams on guitar and organ. Many girls were also developing their voices. Every practice was for a purpose. The expectation to engage and perform for the captive congregation of the entire high school population at weekly Masses was a strong motivating factor that kept students practicing. I played the organ from first through to fourth form. By the time I graduated, the younger students (including Andy Palacio, Len Cayetano, Jeff Zuniga, and Douglas Williams) were rocking the congregation with the school band.
After graduating from Belize Teachers College, where I also studied Music as an elective with lecturer Mr. Octavio Castillo, and took a few piano lessons with Ms. Floss Cassasola in Belize City, I returned to Claver College – now Toledo Community College as a teacher. By then, there was a new staff of teachers but the new priest, Fr. Howard Oliver, was also focused on nurturing youth involvement.
As part of my extra-curricular activities, I voluntarily trained a new school choir, new guitarists and organists. Out of this emerged Lyn Augustine and Peter Castillo who later became lead guitarists with Santino’s Messengers and Coolie Rebels respectively. Wilhelm Johnson became a keyboard player with Santino’s Messengers and now plays with his band in California. Nora Gabourel was the only female on keyboards. The increasing participation of the youth resulted in overflowing standing room only spaces that inspired plans to expand the church building in P.G. SEARCH became the strongest youth group ever seen in PG. At the school, music (and sports) flourished.
Following his graduation from Belize Teachers College, where he also studied music, my good friend Andy Palacio returned to Claver College as a teacher. By that time his exposure to the virtually extinct Garifuna culture in Nicaragua, where he had served as a volunteer teacher for a year in that country’s literacy campaign, awakened within him a new passion to uplift our moribund ancestral culture in Belize. With the backup of student guitarists and organist that I had trained, Andy launched his early career among the youths in PG.
Andy’s musical dynamics within the sacred, the profane, traditional and contemporary became superb. As the most formally educated composer and singer of Garifuna music, Andy not only broke the norms expected of the formally educated. He reconnected music to his ancestral roots and inspired the youths to do so. His later connection with traditional elder Paul Nabor demonstrates his brilliant merging of a disconnected social structure that had defined expectations between the educated and roots people. His blending of the sacred essence of traditional and contemporary music has now rippled powerfully from Barranco and Punta Gorda to the world.
All this, including the constellation of stars that emerged from Claver College, took visionary school leadership. Hopefully, the leaders of more schools will find ways to unleash the potential of their students in music, sports, speech, drama and other forms of expressive arts. These days, too many students are sitting too much, being stifled by Principals and teachers as the vast sweet potential of their innate talents are being wasted in the desert air.
And I – reflecting with deep gratitude on my own music foundations laid by Mrs. Avilez, Fr. Ring, Claver College teachers and others, and the path I shared my students, as well as with Andy as a fellow student, fellow teacher, fellow musician, and fellow Board member of the Sunrise recording group – am now on my piano here at home, playing Andy’s song Amunyegu (In times to come).