Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up
Bloodshot Records (www.bloodshotrecords.com
cd cover Aldous Huxley's grousing about colonial British Honduras being on the way to nowhere else expressed a common ignorance about the most fascinating cultural mosaic of Central America's Caribbean coast, Belize. The musical history of this tiny nation (population 250,000) remains mostly unwritten, so it's a particular pleasure to discover a superb compilation of tracks recorded by the legendary but little-known bands that created the Belizean sound of the 1960s and 1970s. This collection represents the intersecting passions of an inveterate U.S. vinyl collector and R&B fan and the septuagenarian Compton Fairweather, scion of Belize City's Contemporary Electronic Systems emporium, an import house that has long supplied locals with home appliances, furniture, recorded music and other imported manufactured goods.
Like entrepreneurial counterparts across the Caribbean, Fairweather turned his profits to patronizing the arts, music in particular, fielding a variety of bands, recording them, and occasionally underwriting tours to entertain expatriate Belizean communities in urban North America. Founder of the CES label, named after his store, Fairweather is almost single-handedly responsible for having documented the nation's music development in the era preceding Belizean independence from Great Britain in 1981.
Infrequently encountered by vinyl buffs via the Internet auction circuit, originals of these unusual recordings sat for decades nearly forgotten in the basement of Fairweather's family house in Brooklyn. It took the curiosity and persistence of Chicago-based producer Rob Sevier, a co-owner of the issuing label, to unearth them.
Sevier tells it this way: "I heard the Soul Creations 45 'Funky Jive' and decided to go to Belize to look for old records. We got into the airport and just started asking people where to find music. I even talked with the customs agent. Knowing that music had been recorded in the 1970s in Belize, I was going to look in used bookstores and antiques stores. I didn't understand that people might not value old items like this."
"I had the name Contemporary Electronic Systems, and had a hunch that it might be related to a store that sold appliances. I looked in the phone book and found the name. My girlfriend and I went straight there. We still had our luggage with us, and walked for 15 minutes, asking directions from people. When I saw the place, it looked like a new building, but the business had kept the same name throughout the years. We walked in and met the owner, Compton Fairweather. He was impressed that we'd gone straight there without even checking into a hotel. He took us around Belize City, and over to Bird's Isle, the club where the musicians played. He also introduced us to Lord Rhaburn" [Belize City's best-known bandleader of the era].
"We spent a couple of days with Compton, and the story was compelling enough, although I still hadn't heard any music yet. They didn't have any old records in Belize, with the recurring hurricane damage, flooding and all. But the timing was good, because Compton was about to liquidate his family house in Flatbush, where the records had been stored. The house had been vacant for about five years, and homeless people had broken in. But Compton salvaged some LPs there, and the masters were at his second house, on Long Island."
A member of the Belize elite, Fairweather had gone to school with current Prime Minister Said Musa, and with Gerald "Lord" Rhaburn, at St. Michael's College in Belize City. Like many Belizeans, Fairweather had family in the United States, and moved easily back and forth. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1954, traveled and saw the world. Then he went to work for Bell Laboratories, where he learned electronics. Eventually he returned to Belize and founded Contemporary Electronic Systems, and later, the record label.
Fairweather toured the best Belizean bands in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and wherever expat Belizeans congregated after the 1965 Family Reunification Act liberalized U.S. immigration laws. While they were in North America, Fairweather booked studio time, usually in New York, had LPs pressed, and sold them in the U.S. and back home in Belize. The first title heard here dates to summer 1967, the Rhaburn Combo in New York, recorded live at the Manhattan Center. Other vintage Belizean groups documented herein include the Harmonettes, Jesus Acosta & the Professionals, the Soul Creations, the Web, and Nadia Cattouse. Collectively, these 16 tracks document the heavily R&B, rock, Latin and ska sounds that influenced Belizean popular music tastes in the 1960s and 1970s, a product of U.S., Mexican, Cuban and Jamaican recordings and easily received radio broadcasts.
The notes include color reproductions of album art from 12 of the LPs sampled here, most strikingly, Lord Rhaburn's Dogs of War. The original featured an aerial shot of British Harrier jets streaking over Belize City, the stand-in for a fictional West African country in the throes of a military coup, named after the 1981 Christopher Walken film made in Belize. There also are some wonderful documentary photos: a blazer-and-tie Rhaburn smiling at the drum set; a cheeky, bearded Rhaburn in full camo fatigues, brandishing an M-16 as an extra in Dogs of War; and rare shots of Acosta's legendary Professionals and other bygone combos.
According to Sevier, Fairweather has donated some of his materials to the Belize Archives in Belmopan, and plans to donate more. Additionally, Stonetree Records founder Ivan Duran reports that his Belize-based label will be reissuing several archival CES recordings in the coming months and years, helping to document the history of Belizean popular music, a project whose time has come. - Michael Stone
CD available from cdRoots http://www.cdroots.com/bs-belize.html