Looking back, I wish that I had paid closer attention to the history of the Harmonettes. At the same time, I want to go on record to say that the University of Belize (UB) or the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) simply have to find a way to finance the writing of Gerald Rhaburn’s biography. Rhaburn is a walking encyclopedia of Belize’s musical history, and when you talk about musical history in Belize, you are also talking about Belize’s sociology and politics. If UB and NICH don’t understand that this is so, then we have a real problem in Belize.
At the very end of Regent Street West, where it is linked with the eastern beginning of Vernon Street, there is a small street called Turton’s Alley or Turton’s Lane, whatever. Bert Nicholas, a saxophonist who was in the full-time employ of the Santiago Castillo company at their headquarters corner New Road and Hyde’s Lane, lived on Turton’s Lane with his wife and children, and there is where he began the musical combo which would become the Harmonettes.
The core musicians were Mr. Godfrey MacGregor and Bucko Cadle on guitars, and one Steeno on drums. The vocalist was Anthony “Cheapy” Richards. There was a tall trumpeter whose name was Daniel Bennett, but I’m not sure.
Later on, the group added Anthony “Soupa” Jones as another vocalist, and one of Mr. MacGregor’s talented sons, Melvan (Majeli), began playing saxophone. “Soupa” Jones has seemingly vanished into history. When the Harmonettes were disbanded, Melvan would become a key member of Dickie Straughan’s Bamiki Bandula, along with another one of Mr. MacGregor’s sons on keyboards.
As I said at the beginning, I really wish I had paid closer attention to the Harmonettes’ history. I believe, for instance, that the saxophonist Mr. Ivor Cacho was there, but I can’t say for sure, or when. If you do anything historical and leave out somebody important, you can get yourself in trouble. This week the boxer Frank “Tukutak” Humes, visiting from the States, stepped on me for not including him in Sports, Sin and Subversion (Ramos Publishing, Belize City, 2008). My bad.
The young United Black Association for Development (UBAD), formed in February of 1969, early in its history began to hold parties and dances as a source of income. It has always been my impression that the rise of the Harmonettes took place at almost the same time as the rise of UBAD, but I can’t prove it.
Sometime after the split between UBAD and the Shoman/Musa People’s Action Committee (PAC) in January of 1970, UBAD’s “Final Five” took over a club on Racecourse Street which was owned by Omario Perdomo, the founder/owner of Traveller’s Liquors. UBAD renamed the club “Panther’s Cool Spot,” and put Alfred Faber, one of the Final Five, in charge. It was at that club that the relationship between UBAD and the Harmonettes became very close. After we gave up the club, for years the Harmonettes continued to pack the joint.
I’m not sure precisely when the Harmonettes took over Belize City, so to speak. These things are very difficult to pinpoint. I know for sure that by 1972, once you could book the Harmonettes for a Saturday night dance, you owned the old capital’s dance crowd for that night. On the Latin side, Jesus Acosta and the Professionals controlled those who preferred their music Latin. So one time I had the “brilliant” idea of putting the Harmonettes and the Professionals together in a “double-decker” at the Imperial Hall. One of these days, I’ll give you the joke of what happened. Around that time, Rhaburn was the feature attraction at Dickie Gardiner’s Continental Club on Freetown Road, and you know “Conti” was huge those days. (The British were still here.)
A lot of the Harmonettes’ popularity came from the softball crowd. In the early 1970s, ladies softball was the most popular sport in Belize; our young ladies were winning regional competitions, regularly defeating such as the Jamaicans. Once softball brought the Harmonettes to Bird’s Isle on any Saturday night or Sunday evening, it was a guaranteed smash hit.
How much of the Harmonettes’ popularity/success was because of Mr. Nicholas’ smooth personality, it is impossible to say, but I can testify that Mr. Bert Nicholas was such a cool, gentlemanly, beautiful brother, it was always a pleasure doing business with him. He was still a relatively young man when he became ill. With the division of UBAD in 1973 followed by its dissolution in 1974, I’d lost track of Mr. Bert and the Harmonettes.
Around 1975 or so, the disco era began in Belize City with the opening of the Melting Pot disco on Regent Street West near the Swing Bridge. The young generation went wild with disco.
In late 1974, the unprecedented general and municipal election successes of the new Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) changed the dynamic in the streets. Friendship between the UDP and Rhaburn’s Combo made UDP street power a feature of the middle and late 1970s.
When Rhaburn cut his classic Trópico y Ritmo album in 1962 in Guatemala City, his Combo appeared to have a PUP aura. Remember now, the PUP were absolutely running the streets in 1962. Government leaders had supported the album venture. Gerald was always careful to remain independent, but there are reasons why street politics and music are inseparable, why their histories are related, if only in an intellectual sense. This is for our scholars to explore and analyze.
Belize being the strange place that it is, Tony Wright has never gotten the credit he deserves for all the work he has done to research and preserve Belize’s musical history. In Belize, as everywhere else in the Third World, music was an anti-colonial weapon. It was plain to be seen that the colonial authorities were only allowing certain kinds of “society” music to be played on the British Honduras Broacasting Service (BHBS) in the 1950s. When the PUP took over BHBS and made it Radio Belize in the early 1960s, they did not go roots in the radio station’s music. Only Seferino Coleman could do what he wanted. In fact, Radio Belize was so repressive as to ban Young, Gifted, and Black in 1970.
Music and musical history here have important lessons to teach. Tony Wright has done his best, but there are agencies and institutions which should be giving him and his association more credit and support. The stories of Gerald Rhaburn, Bert Nicholas, Pen Cayetano, Mymee Martinez and the other historic musicians of Belize, need to be treated with maximum respect. After all, music is the food of love, and love is where it’s at.
Power to the people. Amandala