Bakra Canna Mek Daans
This delightful account is in response to our request for COS Festivals of Light which, like all those of humanity, stand as testimonies of light, warmth, friendship, and love against the darkness, cold, and death of winter.
If you happen to be in Punta Gorda Town the week before Christmas, having had the mental fortitude to turn away from the televised reruns of Home Alone and Scrooge, while also tuning out the dulcet sounds of Blue Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, you would experience Christmas celebrated in a somewhat different manner. Deep-throated drums, snapping firecrackers, childrenís squeals, blurs of dancing feet, and ethereal shadows backlit by bonfire are some of the sounds and sights of a very Garifuna Christmas.
Punta Gorda Town, more commonly referred to as PG, is the capital of the Toledo District, the largest, least populated and poorest area in Belize. Its Garifuna population is made of the decedents of the original group that sprang up on St. Vincentís Island, Western Caribbean, from the merging of the aboriginal Arawaks or "Island Caribs" and two shiploads of African slaves, stranded on the island in 1635 after the Spanish slavers carrying them were wrecked. Many years later, and after more than one attempt, the British eventually chased these descendants off St. Vincentís Island.
A people most comfortable living with, by and from the sea, the Garifuna landed in Guatemala and spread out, establishing small coastal settlements to the east in Honduras and the west and north along the shores of Belize. Although the Spanish had possession of Belize at that time, British settlers were firmly entrenched and busy chopping down the forests, harvesting logwood and mahogany, and enslaving the Garifuna.
The Garifuna manner of celebrating Christmas was not always an established custom in Punta Gorda Town, at least not until a few years ago, when an ex-pastor down-emigrated from Dangriga, the Garifuna stronghold in Belize. Philip Gabrel was a full-fledged pastor with a deep and abiding love for the cultural roots of his Garifuna flock. In a moment of very human frailty, he briefly divested himself of his clerical garb and joined with his people to participate in the Garifuna dance called Wanaragua. That fall from structured and organized grace lost him the dog collar from about his neck, but set his spirit free - a spirit now residing in Punta Gorda Town actively teaching young men the dance.
Unlike world wars and basketball, which enjoy historic creditability because of the singularity of dates, places, and names, the origins of a cultural tradition are evolutionary, and therefore inexact; so too the origin of the Wanaragua with its distinctly African roots. This dance is also referred to as the John Canoe, from which comes the danceís commonly used Belizean Kriol name, Jangkuna. The white masters, far from hearth and home, were intent on amusing themselves during the joyous Christmas season. Sadly, they suffered from a hereditary defect: WMCD or White Men Canít Dance. Stated more simply, bakra canna mek daans.
As with most work, the responsibility devolved to the slaves to stage the entertainment, and from this came the Wanaragua. The costumes worn by the dancers tell the real story of who was using whom for amusement, and todayís modified version still depicts the essence of the symbolism. The dancers wear facemasks with elaborate headpieces. Painted on the whitish-pink masks are human faces depicting stylized Western European features, sensitive thin lips and aquiline beaked noses so very British. The costumes are uniform with manly white shirts, but worn with womenís skirts. Seen as an amusing bit of foolish nonsense to the master race, what they represented were Scottish kilts. The slaves found it no end ridiculous that the superior white masters dressed up as women.
The music combines the blurring tempo of drums carved from the solid sections of tree trunk, and covered with tanned animal hide, with an accompanying chorus of singers. The Jangkuna starts with each dancer doing a solo performance from the right side of the musicians, and progresses in a whirl-a-gig fashion to the far left. Shoulders are held immobile and arms held out rigidly parallel to the ground, with the palms of the hands facing outwards as if fending off. But the feet are moving in the triple-time beat of the drums, and all the while hips are doing things generally done behind closed bedroom doors. As the first dancer works his way across in front of the musicians, spinning and leaping as he goes, the next dancer enters and does his bit of fancy footwork.
Each dancer has developed personalized steps and movements so that no two are exactly alike. There is no competition or one-upmanship between the dancers, but there is a challenge going on all the while between the dancer and the drummers which produces some incredibly fast hand and foot movements. When all dancers have completed a turn, the leader of the group is on, and invariably his is the capping performance. Occasionally he will wear a crown remarkable in its similarity to that reposing upon the anointed head of the British monarch. A staff is also carried. The finale has all participants following the leader into a dancing ring and then an exit.
Punta Gorda Town lacks both snow and Christmas carolers muffled to their chins in wool and fur, sending out tiny puffs of frosted musical notes into the frigid night. But it does have a Christmas Jangkuna group going block-to-block, and willing to stop by for a bit of loose change and a drink. All along the way, the troupe has been collecting children until there is a veritable mob in train. You can always tell when you have missed out on a performance because there are dozens of crushed bottle caps scattered about the ground from where they had flown off of the knee bands worn by the dancers to accompany the drums and adding their tinkly little rhythms.
The Garifuna are a deeply spiritual people, and their ancestors, having been denied the practice of their traditional religions following their all-expense paid trip to the New World, adopted Christianity fervently as a socially acceptable replacement, with a few modifications here and there, of course. One important traditional practice stems from the need to prepare the way for Christís arrival on Christmas Day. To successfully achieve this Coming, it is first necessary to make the world pure by cleansing the earth of evil. In other words, Bon di Debl.
The process begins with drummers and dancers, doing another Garifuna dance (the Punta for this occasion), going door-to-door, rounding up the young and old alike. When a sufficient gathering is in place, di Debl, made from an old shirt and trousers, and then stuffed with flammables, is brought out from one house where he has been prepared in advance, and deposited in the middle of the crowd. This effigy of the Devil is enthusiastically assaulted with rocks, sticks, fists, and feet, and is generally meant to feel unloved and unwanted. After passions have moderated to the proper degree of fever pitch, di Debl is put to the fire and burned. The evil departs this earth in flame and smoke and small explosive eruptions (firecrackers have been stuffed into his guts as well...di Debl is definitely not a passive sort). This ceremony is also repeated just before the first of January to prepare the world for an evil-free New Year. Would that it were so...
Anywhere in the world where traditions are kept through celebrations, music and dance are always accompanied by food, and the Garifuna are certainly no exception. Several special dishes are prepared for the Christmas season. Since rice figures strongly in the daily diet, it is only natural that variations also make themselves present during the holiday season: Bime-Cacule is a sweet rice that has been cooked with sugar; Rias-Lab, is a second rice dish but cooked with coconut milk. Another staple to the Garifuna is plantain, and it is taken in its green, unripened state and then boiled and mashed to make Hu-Dut. Fish, rather than chicken, is the standard fare for these coastal dwellers.
Two of the more prominent dishes are Serre, which is fish cooked with flour, and Saley, a salted- and sun-dried fish preparation. Fish is also mixed with green bananas and coconut milk, to make Ta-Pow. But regardless of the occasion, it is not real down-home Garifuna cooking without Ere-Bai, the cassava bread that is the centerpiece of the traditional Garifuna diet.
Dance, music, song, food, good cheer, fun, and the continuity of family, faith, and community: it is indeed The Season. Itís worth the trip.
---Jeffrey Cleveland, Belize (1997-99)
Photos from author.