Garifuna Settlement Day will be celebrated on Tuesday and residents across the country have begun their annual pilgrimage to the Culture Capital, where they will indulge in plenty of food and drinks, as well as the music of the Garinagu. While the ethnic songs and dances will be on full display, the Garifuna drum, a key component of the festivities, will also take center stage. Tonight, News Five’s Isani Cayetano takes a closer look at the importance of this musical instrument to the Garifuna people. The following story features renowned drum maker Austin Rodriguez and his two daughters, a family of Belizean artisans focused on moving their culture forward.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The soul of Garifuna music is undeniably anchored by the polyrhythmic depth and timbre of the Garifuna drum. Cylindrical or cone-shaped, this wooden percussion instrument, tautly wrapped on one end by a thin membrane, often the cured hide of a sheep or deer, is central in any genre of ethnic song and dance. The uptempo measure of the Primero or the subtle register of the Segundo is a uniquely impressive sound. Together they evoke strong emotions.
Roy Cayetano, Garifuna Historian
“In ritual, we have three drums and those drums symbolize the totality of Garifuna life: past, present and future. And they play their part in representing the Garifuna world view, the Garifuna cosmology, if you will. In secular life we generally use the Primero and the Segundo to play the various types of music that we use for festive occasions. And when I say festive occasions of course I don’t just mean fun times because we also mask our grief, our sorrows, our burdens in song and dance.”
Eighty-three-year-old Austin Rodriguez, a resident of Dangriga, is a master craftsman. His skill in drum making is unrivaled. Using rudimentary tools, Rodriguez, whose instruments are renowned the world over, has been fashioning drums for almost fifty years. He is self-taught.
Austin Rodriguez, Drum Maker
“I noh go nowhere and learn nothing. I just imagined how to make it and I make it through because I am determined that I am not to work with nobody.”
With strength of mind and share enthusiasm Rodriguez set out to make his first drum.
“When I made my first drum brother man, I cut it through when I used a chainsaw, I cut it through because I cut it one time and I said I wasn’t going to cut it anymore, you know, and I keep on. Beginning the whole thing brother man, interest behind starting something, you know, when you get into it, it starts to show itself to you. This is going to be the way, this is going to be the way, this is going to be the way until you up there.”
Unlike his brief learning curve, over time Rodriguez has risen to become a preeminent Garifuna sculptor, earning his place in the pantheon of Belizean artists. Following closely in his footsteps are daughters, Naurilee and Daytha.
Daytha Rodriguez, Drum Maker
“Dis da di mahogany log that we use. We use mahogany, mayflower and cedar. This process mi sista need fi cut di both ends to level the both ends. Then from that process we’re going to find the diameter of the log.”
In the continuum of Garifunaduou, the perpetual cycle of carrying on tradition, these siblings are the future of drum making.
Naurilee Rodriguez, Drum Maker
“I asked him he could show me how to do the drums and how to use the chainsaw but he never wanted me to use the chainsaw because then he used to tell me, “oh you’re a little girl, you can’t do that or you can’t do that.” So when he decided to go to the States and he promised my mom that he was going to send money home to run the home, he found tools out there that he wanted to bring back so he couldn’t send. So I decided to start do the drums on my own. He left some shells there and I started covering them. Then when the shells finished I started to dig out the drums.”
While the process is arduous, the drum, when crafted to perfection, is a symbol of the Garifuna spirit of endurance. That tenacity is celebrated in the poem, Drums of My Fathers.
“I am the hollowed, hallowed, haloed trunk and the hills and the vales and the streams and the soul of Africa.”
Roy Cayetano’s ode to the power of the drum, its rhythms representing the very fabric of Garifuna life, is the embodiment of the combined effect of the human and metaphysical relationship.
“I had started the first few lines of a poem that I wanted to write that said something about the soul of the Garifuna people, the essence of being Garifuna and I started the first few lines… Drums of my Fathers rumbling in my bones. And the words just came, the words just came. I think it must have been written in something like twenty minutes. It was like dictated. In Garifuna we have a phenomenon called ichahouwaruguti and I think this is a high level of inspiration where the universe speaks through you, the ancestors speak through you. We have that in Garifuna music where people speak of learning a song rather than of having composed it because of the way the songs are given to them.”
So was the preordained talent of Austin Rodriguez. His daughters, disciples of the trade, are also making a name for themselves. In this family the students have become teachers.
“When my daughter makes a drum and the one that I make, you can see the difference. She is very careful when she is working. You can know the difference.”
“He would boast, you know, [he would say,] “Oh my daughter could do better drums than I do. She also does different styles and different designs of drums, you know. Sometimes I teach him different things that I, you know, design on my own.”
What they have learned collectively, after years of employing deer hide as the percussive surface of choice, is that sheep skin is a more resilient leather. It sounds better too.
“When you go to take off the fur we use a knife. Sharpen your knife as sharp as you could then you work it because sheep skin is not easy to take off the fur. You have to get your knife sharp. Then your drum, you get the rims, the top and the bottom rim, you get it. Then you have to wet the skin so that it can fold the way you want it to, you know, and then you wrap it up and you just put it on.”
Once completed and finely tuned, the garawoun, or drum, is regal. It symbolizes the progression of the Garifuna people. In Dangriga, a shrine has been erected in its honor, bearing the namesake of the famous poem.
“The present incorporating the past and the future emerging from the present. That is why we have the Drums of My Fathers monument at the entrance to Old Dangriga to proclaim to the world the importance of the drums.”
Reporting for news five, I am Isani Cayetano.