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, as well as visitors. Interest quickly spread to include performances and lessons at a number of guesthouses and 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, breaking down the rythms into easy learning stages. Within minutes you'll be able to provide the lead beat, while Ray performs the complex rhythms on his smaller primero drum, hands moving seemingly at the speed of light, and singing in his rich, mellow voice.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!
Drumming lessons (starting from as little as BZ$25 pp) and a variety of other cultural activities are available at the Warasa Drum School, located at the Garifuna Reserve on New Road, around a 10 minute walk from the airstrip in PG Town, or a 25 minute leisurely cycle ride from Hickatee.