In the world view of the Garinagu, Paul Nabor, Belize’s internationally revered parandero, has entered the community of the departed where he will eventually join the society of the ancestors. Like all those who have gone before him, his death is seen as a rite of passage, a cross-over from the material life to the world of the ancestors, from where he will continue to be very much a part of the community and be available to living family members for advice and discipline when necessary.
As an ebu, a spirit medium through whom the ancestors communicate to advise and heal the living, Nabor would have gained a uniquely deep awareness and experience of the world of the spirits. His journey to that world began at his death on October 22, 2014, having completed 86 years of a fascinating human experience.
While he was affectionately known as Paul Nabor or Nabi, and sometimes referred to as Paul Sentino, Nabor was named Alfonso Palacio at his birth in Punta Gorda on January 26, 1928. He was partly raised by his uncle and godfather, Nor Cayetano and his aunt Francisco Nunez Cayetano in the same lot where the dabuyaba (Garifuna temple) is located and which became his home in his old age.
He attended St. Peter Claver School, which was at the time just handed over to the Pallotine nuns who had arrived around 1932. The school’s former leadership by Garifuna principals since the late 1880s up to the principalship of S. B. Daniels from 1919 to 1931, had by then reinforced a culture that encouraged children who excelled to become Catholic teachers to be dispersed to teach in rural communities all over Belize, then British Honduras.
Those who became teachers tended to perpetuate submissive Christian attitudes, adopted colonial values, and undermined their connection to their ancestral culture. It was the “uneducated”, those whose minds were not culturally reorganized by the school system, who tended to preserve their language and other aspects of their ancestral culture, and pass it on to their children and community.
Fortunately, by not being totally infected by the identity destroying education system Paul Nabor blazed his own path. Being the rebel that he was, his life became defined through the roots of his Garifuna culture which he contributed outstandingly to preserve. He showcased to the world much of what would have by now been lost.
Outside the salaried security of the teaching profession, life in PG was especially harsh. Dr. Joseph Palacio noted that, “As a young man Paul Nabor dabbled into many things to earn a living – working at sawmills all over southern Belize; for some time he was a chiclero. He more often relied on fishing. Like other young men of his time he migrated to Guatemala and Honduras where he could get jobs with the fruit companies and his fish could fetch more cash. When he was in Guatemala and Honduras he became more serious about his music, singing and playing the guitar with groups or by himself. From early in life he had a special liking for Paranda music.”
My own memory of Paul Nabor spans well over four decades when as a child I used to hear him singing his paranda compositions from the home of his sister Fannie when they used to live in my neighbourhood in the Nehi Area of PG. His jovial singing accompanied by guitar and drums has remained etched deep in my psyche since childhood especially since I had keen interest in music. Although I was learning to play the piano then, I was fascinated by Nabor’s spontaneous traditional style such that I would find every opportunity to listen.
I remember many childhood Christmas seasons, starting from around December 15th to January 6th (the church’s Epiphany or Feast of the Three Kings) when Nabor and his small group of singers and drummers serenaded (esedeiraha in Garifuna) from house to house all through PG singing his paranda compositions. Each year, for the number of years that they serenaded, his group faithfully included singers Mrs. Mamaya Nunez, Lucia Martinez and Cecilia Martinez.
As they went from house to house, they also carried a large doll-sized effigy of a white couple, whom they called Mr. Noe and Mrs. Noe, along with a small model wooden ship, called badima. I had never quite understood the full significance of the effigy and the ship until recently when Mrs. Juana Cayetano, daughter of the late Mrs. Mamaya Nunez, explained to me that it must have been connected to a musical folk history they sang about St. Vincent, the Garifuna homeland from where their ancestors were brutally expelled by the British. Each night, Mr. Noe and Mrs. Noe would be left to “sleep” at the house of the day’s last performance. From there they would resume the esedeiraha the following day.
Nabor and his group sang with incredible passion and emotion. His songs came from a deep source of life’s experiences. His conscious lyrics revealed incidents of struggles, conquests, relationships, family connections or offered wise counsel for life. These were not the deydigi-dei-dei, deydigi-dei-dei sort of meaningless repetitive lyrics as sometimes produced by commercialized artists these days. Even while the rhythms moved body, heart and soul, the underlying messages permeated the emotion of each listener. At every house people joined in clapping, dancing, singing and laughing, or they listened in silence as they absorbed the various mood that Nabor and his group evoked so well. After the group’s performances, they would be offered gifts of food or money.
According to Juana Cayetano, Nabor began serenading around the mid-1950s while he was living in Livingston, Guatemala. There, he and his relative, Mrs. Mamaya Nunez, who were classmates in primary school and life-long friends, became popular with their Christmas serenading before they moved in the early 1960s to PG where they continued.
Nabor had started to sing and play the guitar since he was 18 years old. This meant that he was singing long before many important milestones of Belizean history. Before the formation of Belize’s political parties, Nabor was singing. Before universal adult suffrage was declared in 1954, before self-government in 1964, right through after Independence in 1981, ever since former Prime Minster Musa was an infant, and before the current Prime Minister Dean Barrow and almost 90% of Belizeans were born, Nabor was singing his heart out.
The songs that Nabor composed and sang throughout those decades had become so numerous that he himself had forgotten many of them. In later years, he and Mamaya had often tried to remember the earlier songs. There were no recording technologies available back then to capture for posterity his prolific and often spontaneous compositions. The rich compositions of other Garifuna musicians before him, have remained interred in their bones.
It was only after more than 40 years of his singing and performance as a parandero, that Paul Nabor gained the opportunity to record his music. He was introduced by Andy Palacio to Ivan Duran of Stonetree Records. Through the collective efforts of Andy and Ivan, combined with the extensive experiences from his humble roots, Nabor soared to the national and world stage. His charisma, skill and passion endeared him to many. As a result, Garifuna music gained deeper respect as it became elevated to its highest level nationally and internationally.
Like the music of other Garifuna ancestors before him but whose works have been lost, Nabor’s lifelong music also inspired and re-grounded internationally acclaimed Garifuna music stars Andy Palacio, Aurelio Martinez and other artists to the deeper essence and soul of Garifuna music. Unlike music created merely for a quick fun and a quick buck, their music which is sourced from the depths of their experiences and their truths, has become timeless and far reaching across cultures.
Through all those years when Nabor composed and sang, he, in his humility, never realized the great impact he would one day have on all of us. Given the harsh realities of PG, and an education system that has not only stifled native talents but keeps promoting karaoke copies of foreign cultural values, he has emerged as an authentic inspirational force, the legendary paranda king in Belize’s national cultural landscape.
Nabor will transition from this life to those of the ancestors just as he wished in his most popular song, Naguya Nei. Having sang his heart out with his guitar for well over fifty years, having paddled his dorey with his sinewy arms through the rough seas of life to achieve the highest honours in Belize’s culture, and having been in constant connection with the ancestors through his work as an ebu, Nabor quite fittingly departs with song and celebration. As he requested, “Lauba la banda habunana” (They must have a band at my funeral.)
Ayo Paul Nabor. From childhood I have heard you sing. You sang for us all. Now it is our turn to sing for you. And yes, there will be a band. Belize is the band to celebrate your life at your funeral.