Belize Spirit Guide Rescues Dying Guitar Music
Thu October 2, 2003 08:08 AM ET
By Greg Brosnan http://reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=musicNews&storyID=3546530
PUNTA GORDA, Belize (Reuters) - An old Belizean spirit guide with a
battered guitar and dead ancestors for muses is leading young
descendants of shipwrecked African slaves and Caribbean Indians back to
their musical roots.
Long-confined to wakes and funerals in villages along the Caribbean
coasts of Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, paranda, a deeply spiritual
guitar music of Central America's black Garifuna ethnic group, had all
but died out.
Discovered by a local record company after years in oblivion, Paul
Nabor, one of paranda's last surviving masters, is saving it from
extinction and inspiring a new generation to keep it alive.
The white-haired 75-year-old with sparkling eyes and a flyweight boxer's
frame lives in Punta Gorda, a ramshackle town on the south coast of this
tiny country of just 250,000 inhabitants wedged between Mexico and
For more than a decade, Nabor as Punta Gorda's Garifuna spirit guide has
dished out advice and blessings from a wooden temple in a mixture of
Catholicism and African rituals.
But his battered steel-string tells of a past life moonlighting as a
minstrel between back-breaking stints working in ports and plantations.
SONGS FROM THE SPIRITS
Nabor never studied music and can barely read or write. He says his
songs are gifts from dead ancestors.
"I'm asleep and in my dream I hear a tune," he said in heavily accented
creole English. "I start humming it until I bring it out."
Joy and sorry intertwine in his bittersweet songs.
Roughened fingers picked out a mournful arpeggio on worn bass strings as
he sang a high, haunting introduction in the vowel-heavy Garifuna
Then he quickened the pace to a foot-tapping strum, shaking his
shoulders to the rhythm as he belted out a cheery melody through a broad
The song, "Naguya Nei" -- "I'm Moving On" -- recounts how his dying
sister asked for an upbeat band to liven up her funeral.
Some half million Garifuna live on northern Central America's Caribbean
coast, descended from African slaves who intermarried with Indians on
the island of Saint Vincent after being shipwrecked there in 1635 on
their way to the Americas.
Since settling in the area after being deported from Saint Vincent by
the British a century later, they have maintained their unique language
and culture in part by handing them down to younger generations through
But as thousands of Garifuna migrate north to the United States in
search of work, ancient traditions like paranda, an adaptation of
African drum beats and singing styles to the Spanish guitar, are
drowning in a tide of U.S. pop culture.
Kept alive by a few reclusive old masters, the genre was in danger of
dying out when Garifuna musician Andy Palacio heard Nabor play in 1993
and passed a tape to a small Belizean record company bent on reviving
traditional local music.
Stonetree Records founder Ivan Duran recorded Nabor with other veteran
artists on "Paranda," an album later released internationally. The
veteran troubadour was soon playing to thousands of world music fans
from Europe to the Far East.
"The audience fell in love with him," Duran said of one French concert.
"He got two encores; people just went wild."
Now young Belizean Garifuna have begun including paranda songs on their
albums and are even writing their own.
"Nabor has shown the younger generation that there is another way of
looking at music," said Duran.
Lloyd Augustine, a 22-year-old Garifuna singer-songwriter, is among
upcoming paranda artists recording their songs on a new Stonetree album
due out soon.
"You get goose bumps when you hear it. It touches you deep down," he
said of the genre. "Nabor's woken everybody up."
As Jamaican rap boomed through the steamy Punta Gorda night amid the
chirps of crickets, Nabor bemoaned the rise of the portable stereo or
"boom box" as it is known here.
"The youth doesn't want to learn," he tutted. "They love the boom-box
more than singing, but if there's no singing there will be nothing to
put in the box."
His grandson Gordon Zuniga, a 23-year-old with long dreadlocks whom
Nabor is teaching to sing and play, said paranda will never die.
"There will always be someone who plays it," he said, strumming as the
old man looked on proudly.
"It's inside of us," said Zuniga. "We can't forget it."