memorable, comfortable, affordable ... Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize

Hickatee Cottages offers free Garifuna drumming on a Wednesday evening. This isn't a tourist 'show' but more of an 'audience participation' type affair. Ray McDonald, one of Belize's top drummers, will demonstrate and then teach you one of the six rythms. We wrote the article below for the Toledo Howler newspaper.

Paint, plywood, and paranda

Drumming is just one of the tangible elements of the Garifuna culture, and Warasa Drum school is aptly named – “warasa” meaning “our culture” in the Garifuna language.

Warasa Drum School was founded in 2010 by Ronald Raymond McDonald, and his wife, Ruth. Ruth originally hails from Scotland, and she reminisces that a few weeks after they first met Ray shared his dream with her of opening a Garifuna drumming centre – not only to teach drumming, but also how to make drums, and to share the Garifuna culture with others. With both of them working and saving hard to build their house at the Garifuna reserve they struggled to see how this vision could become a reality but, deciding they had to start somewhere, spent a weekend designing a sign, putting paint to plywood, and erecting the finished product outside their rented house.

The sign did its job, piquing interest, and Ray began teaching four local children. He was also engaged by a PG guesthouse (read, "Hickatee Cottage") to provide weekly drumming lessons for their guests, and interest quickly spread to include performances and lessons at a number of lodges throughout the District.

Ray is an engaging character and a very patient and skilled teacher. Being fiercely proud of the Garifuna culture, lessons are filled with anecdotes and stories that provide a fascinating insight into the Garifuna culture – a culture which was little known outside of the region until recently, but one which is now recognized by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.

Ray claims that he can teach even the most non-musical to master at least one of the six traditional Garifuna rhythms, and I was curious as to whether he lived up to his reputation. I wondered how I would fare at my first lesson (especially being ‘kack-handed’ which had previously led to some interesting experiments with stringed instruments), but Ray broke down the simplest Paranda rhythm into easy stages – the heavy beat from the lead hand, interspersed with a half beat. Within a few minutes we were rocking – my providing the lead beat on the larger segunda drum, with Ray dazzling us with complex rhythms on his smaller primero drum, hands moving seemingly at the speed of light, before breaking into song in his rich, mellow voice.

Although my technique could have done with quite some improvement, we then moved on to the Gunjei rhythm. Oh my, not only were there twice the number of beats involved, but suddenly your hands need to move position on the drum. It looked amazingly complex but, again, Ray broke it down into small parts and a few minutes later the “one two-and three-and four-and” (coupled with a back and forth from the centre to the edge of the drum) was starting to become more fluid.

The drums themselves are a labour of love, hollowed out from cedar, mahogany or yemeri logs, topped with deer skin held in place by vines, and a wire or string snare to intensify the sound. (Note to ladies: you should dress suitably so as to preserve your modesty – a large drum and short skirt can make for some pretty revealing photographs, so short or long pants are a good idea).

Each Garifuna rhythm is usually accompanied by a different style of singing and dancing, with the Punta probably being the most popular style in Belize, and as close to a national dance as you can get. Visitors are often mystified how Belizeans are seemingly able to move their butts independently of their body, and there’s a widespread myth that Belizeans have developed special muscles. Ray disputes that, and also teaches Garifuna Dance – the secret, he says, is all in shifting your knees! Ruth agrees, and she has now mastered both the Punta and Paranda dance, but I decided to leave those lessons for another day.

As Warasa grows, they are also helping to raise awareness of Toledo and our rich cultural heritage. This edition of the Howler coincides with Warasa’s move from West Street to their new home at the Garifuna Reserve on New Road, around a 10 minute walk from the airstrip in PG Town.

To learn more about Warasa, visit their website at www.warasadrumschool.com, and their Facebook page www.facebook.com/WarasaDrumSchool. Telephone 632 7701.