The Drums Beat on at Birds Isle
The far end of Albert Street this morning was rocking with the sounds of Garifuna drumming. The annual battle of the drums moved to Belize City this year in anticipation of the upcoming Garifuna Settlement Day. Sixteen competing high schools gathered at Birds Isle where the event was taking place. In the end, it was a high school from the south that mastered the sounds and moves of the Garifuna culture. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The soul of Garifuna music, many would readily attest, lies in the percussive rhythms of a pair of wooden drums. Those instruments, fittingly called the primero and the segundo, are accompanied by the sharp splashes of the maracas. That sound bed is then overlaid with call and response from a choir of singers, known in Garifuna as gayusa. Together, it is an undeniable harmony designed to evoke a certain consciousness. It also compels movement. Music is an inextricable feature of Garifuna culture and today the best young drummers, singers and dancers are on display.
Darius Avila, President, Battle of the Drums Secretariat
“This competition is part of our Garifuna cultural retrieval and preservation initiative, the Battle of the Drums. It is part of, as well, our language retrieval because, you know, through singing it’s one way you can retrieve language. As well, in terms of the drumming, well of course that is part of our dance and singing Garifuna retrieval initiative.”
Gathered together, mostly from the southern districts, are students who have formed various teams to compete in the annual High School Battle of the Drums. It’s a showcase of dress, performance and flourish and Ecumenical High School is the defending champion.
Jaheed Witty, Ecumenical High School
“What we did at school, we had the in-house Battle of the Drums and from there they picked the students who would go up for the high school Battle of the Drums and that’s what tightened up our school.”
It’s the first time in its seven-year run that the pilgrimage is being made to Belize City and the Big Birds Isle is alive with the din of a fish market.
The reigning kings of percussion are facing stiff competition this year from a group of Wesley College students.
Joel Wade, Team Leader, Wesley College
“In 2013, I saw a news item and I saw the Battle of the Drums for high school and I said, “You know what, we are going to enter that.” And the following year I spoke to the principal and we entered the competition.”
“What has that journey been like in terms of the years of participation and the teams getting better?”
“Well, we have elevated the level and every year we step and every year the other schools also step it up so the competition has really grown.”
“Now where do you see Wesley College in terms of its performance this year?”
“I know that definitely we are, right now I would say we are the leaders, alright. My drummers have put in the work, they did their performance. But we have segments and we have criteria, so we have to complete the competition before we know exactly if we are first or second.”
The criteria, as explained by organizer Darius Avila, looks at several areas, including drumming and dancing in various genres.
“This competition has two segments. We have the face-off segment which is the first round where they play a combination of three types of drumming: punta, hunguhungu and paranda, in any order that they so choose. The second round is where they play a combination of chumba and wanaragua and they are judged according to various criteria; namely, transition, how they move from drumming one type of drumming to another type, engagement of spectators. We notice that there is no shortage of that in this audience.”
Traveling all the way from Punta Gorda is a team from Toledo Community College. Dressed in the noble colors of white, black and gold, they are once again in it for the experience. Earning the coveted title, however, is anyone’s game.
Tyrese Bermudez, Toledo Community College
“Ih really like hard because you know you have different schools competing for one title and everybody brings different styles and creativity to the competition.”
“And for you as a drummer, what is it like going up against all these other young men who have perfected the skill of drumming?”
Devaughn Paulino, Toledo Community College
“Well for me it’s a difficult task because we only practice when the time is right for us and like the other drummers they practice right through the year. They are born with that skill, but for us, we only practice for the Battle of the Drums when it comes up.”
“And I gather that you guys are also singers, right? What is it like learning some of these songs and being able to perform them out here today?”
Nanigi Bernardez, Toledo Community College
“Well the song wasn’t difficult, it was kind of challenging but not difficult. And it was great.”
“How has that helped you to learn some of the words of the Garifuna language?”
“Well, basically if you’re not a Garifuna it will be kinda challenging, but if you’re a Garifuna you will know the words and what it means.”
The origin of the High School Battle of the Drums goes back to a call that was made seven years ago.
“It started out of a request by the high schools that we have a competition of this nature, pretty much like the Senior Battle of the Drums that takes place in Punta Gorda Town on the Saturday just before the nineteenth day of November each year. So we have in this competition six high schools at this time from Punta Gorda we have Toledo Community College, Independence High, Georgetown Tech, Delille Academy from Dangriga, as well as Ecumenical High School and then of course, Wesley College from Belize City.”
In the end, Independence High School managed to edge out Stann Creek Ecumenical to take the coveted title this year. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.