Helping a country to raise its voices
Ivan Duran preserves and promotes Belize's music, a stew as beguiling and obscure as its homeland.

By Reed Johnson, Times Staff Writer

CIVILIZATIONS come and go in this remote Central American outpost: Mayan Indians, British colonizers, African slaves who fled here from neighboring Honduras. As the years pass, monuments turn to ruins. Voices fall silent.

But the timeworn music of this unique cultural crossroads stubbornly survives. Once in a while it may even flourish.

Whenever that occurs these days, Ivan Duran is likely to be hovering somewhere nearby, microphone in hand, digital recorder at the ready. Deep in the interior of this poor, resolutely easygoing nation between the Caribbean and the Guatemalan border, Duran's boutique independent label, Stonetree Records, is helping to preserve a lush musical ecosystem.

Though Stonetree sells only several hundred or, at most, a few thousand copies of each album it puts out, the company has almost single-handedly taken this country's reclusive musical culture out of smoky Belize City bars and late-night jam sessions in small coastal villages and given it the makings of a global platform.

Since 1995, the company has been recording the aging masters and emerging young stars of Belizean popular music, including the wildly infectious Garifuna sounds that define the country's uncanny Afro-Indian heritage. Belizean music has been a swirling sonic cocktail ever since the Garifuna, or Garinagu, people, the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves and Carib Indians, were driven off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1796 and scattered to Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize and the American South.

But before Stonetree, few outsiders had much chance of hearing it. At the time, there were no other studios, and Duran had to rent equipment to make his first recording.

"Nobody else was doing it, so it was easy for us to do it," says Duran, 34, who was born in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula of Spanish parents, immigrated to Belize as a babe-in-arms and studied music in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Formerly the colony of British Honduras, Belize was fought over by Spain, Britain and Guatemala before it gained independence in 1981. Its culture is the product of a chain of historical accidents and unlikely encounters.

"I think that's what Belize is about: very unexpected," says Duran, who speaks Spanish, English and Creole. "Our existence as a country is totally unique."

So is the existence of Stonetree.

On a quiet street in this sleepy town one mile from the Guatemalan border, the studio complex is only a five-minute drive from the ancient Mayan ruins of Xunantunich and a comfortable distance from the coastal hot spots where the cruise-liner crowd snorkels and slurps down parasol drinks.

Stonetree is Belize's most ambitious studio-recording venture, in a country with a dearth of practically everything except natural beauty and raw human talent. Although Belize now has around 10 to 15 recording studios, all but two or three are small enterprises that mostly turn out demo tapes. Stonetree, Belize's only record label, is the only studio that makes album-length recordings. Yet per capita, Belize (population 266,000) produces more local roots music than much larger neighbors such as Guatemala and El Salvador, Duran says.


Cross-breeding past, present

AS its name implies, Stonetree aims to cross-breed the country's rock-solid musical past with its still-germinating present. Today, echoes of Belize's polyrhythmic birthright live on in the work of scarred virtuosos including Paul Nabor, 74, a buyei (spiritual healer) and much-beloved master of paranda, a form of Garifuna with a solid beat that incorporates Spanish guitar influences.

The ache of exile and the melancholy of ordinary life color paranda the same way they do Mississippi Delta blues, and an indomitable spirit blows through these stark lamentations. .

Another Stonetree living legend is Wilfred Peters, 75, a Belizean accordionist and leader of the Peters Boom & Chime band. He's known as the King of Brukdown, a pun-happy, satirical music that originated decades ago in Belize's logging camps as a way of transmitting news and gossip with a danceable beat.

"My music is not too common, because everybody want to leave their culture for another culture," Peters says in sing-songy Creole English from his home in Belize City. "But me, I just want to keep on with my culture."

In addition to harvesting traditional sounds for posterity, Duran and his staff are constantly prowling the musical backwaters for new outgrowths and mutations. Stonetree's small catalog is energized by young- and young-ish performers such as Andy Palacio, 49, a regional star of Garifuna music who came up from the "punta rock" movement of the early 1980s. Punta rock, a funky, fast-tempo music similar to merengue and Trinidadian soca, was one of the first alternative styles to emerge in the wake of Belizean independence.

Another young Stonetree artist, Aurelio Martínez, 36, has revolutionized paranda by harmonically enhancing the music while retaining a very authentic roots sound. Last year he was elected to the Honduran congress, the first Garinagu from his province ever to hold that office. He's planning a U.S. musical tour this summer, with an L.A. show possibly next year.

Martínez agrees with Palacio that operations such as Stonetree are all too rare in this corner of the world. "There aren't [music] impresarios that can invest much," he says. "Ivan is a special case in Central America."


Going where the music is

BECAUSE the musicians he records tend to live in small, scattered towns and villages, Stonetree often must take its show on the road. For several recording projects, Duran has packed up the studio equipment into his '91 Ford Ranger and set up a temporary studio in the middle of some obscure fishing village or dusty settlement of a few hundred people.

Stonetree's upcoming CD/CD-ROM release "Umalali" (Garifuna for "voice"), due out early next year, involved recording more than 50 women at various locations in Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. None of them is a professional singer, and Duran estimates he and his crew visited about two dozen communities, some two or three times, to make the recordings.

In such cases, Duran says, it helps to move the recording studio on location and spend as much time there as necessary, an option that's not possible when you're renting a Belize City recording studio for $100 an hour.

In recent years, Stonetree has gotten indirect support from the Peace Corps, which shares the company's goal of preserving native Belizean culture. Austin Arzu, a Corps associate director for Belize, says the agency has assigned two volunteers to work with Stonetree through the Music Industry Assn. of Belize, a nongovernmental organization of which Duran is president and a founding member. Arzu says he dreams of a future in which Belize can attract as many cultural tourists as eco-tourists.

Stonetree's artistic mission remains a tough sell. Its most successful release, a paranda anthology, has sold about 5,000 copies since it was released seven years ago. To spur domestic sales, the company has 60 listening stations spread around the country; its website helps generate overseas sales. "I'm even scared to use the term 'recording industry' in Belize," Duran says. "There's no Bob Marley, and this is not Kingston."

Tapping the essence of such an unusual musical culture requires sweat and patience. The typical Stonetree release takes two years to produce. But for Duran and his artistic colleagues, the exploration seems as important as the discovery. "Beyond just the exoticness of the language and the beats," he says, "it needs to be something that goes directly to your heart."