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Were it not for a timely shipwreck in 1635 off the coast of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles, this story might have turned out differently. The West and Central African people on board – destined for slavery in the Caribbean – instead came ashore and established themselves freely among the indigenous Carib and Arawak people. The Garinagu people have been resisting assimilation and European colonization ever since. Now, almost 400 years later, their strong community spirit, language (Garifuna was unwritten until recently), food, clothing, and culture are as strong as ever; a living history now found on the shores of Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala and the US. Binding this all together: music and dance.


On the tip of Hopkins Village, Belize, if you follow the sound of drums, you will find the Lebeha Drumming Center, opened in 2003 by Jabbar Lambey and Dorothy Pettersen to preserve Garifuna culture. This is where youngsters raced to after school every day to learn their own traditional songs and dances. In 2005 the kids released their first album, Lebeha Drumming, recorded under a palapa. Audiences around the world marveled at their infectious enthusiasm and soulful playing. Now, two decades on, some of those same kids (including Warren Martinez and Clayton Williams) have grown into masterful professional talents. It was high time they made their first studio album. With the support of international fans, and despite the pandemic, they recorded Biama at Stonetree Studios near the Guatemalan border and it was mastered in California.

The 13-song album of vocals and drums (and some calabash shakers and turtle shells) includes new songs and old, set to traditional rhythms such as punta, paranda, chumba, wanaragua, and hüngühüngü. While other Garifuna musicians have added amplification, guitars, and keyboards (as found in the more commercial up-tempo Punta Rock), the Lebeha Drummers always play unplugged, in the time-honored, traditional manner.


Biama is not an artifact of an endangered culture but rather a celebration of the daily vibrancy of the living street music of Hopkins. Today, Belizeans countrywide sing along to their favorite Garifuna songs in a language they neither speak nor understand. The title of one of the original songs – now a major cultural anthem – by Clayton Williams, sums up the sense of defiance and pride: Garifuna Nguya (I Am Garifuna). It has been a long journey, with deep and distant roots, but the spirit of the ancestors is alive and well. 

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