In January 2015 I traveled on an arts grant to study Garifuna drumming in Belize. Hopkins Village is a coastal community of about 1500 people on the shores of the Caribbean sea, wedged between Mayan ruins further inland and the barrier reef 20 miles out. A lagoon to the north, Hopkins Bay to the east, the Sittee River to the south, and a wetland to the west limit the village to only a bit over a mile long and about five blocks deep at it's widest. Five Chinese groceries, 15 local restaurants, and bunches of vacation rentals seem the sole sources of commerce.
Tina's Kitchen offered our favorite meal: stew pork over beans and rice with spicy slaw. Down the street from her picnic-tabled, thatch-covered, open-air dining room is a sign for Authentic Garifuna Drums. All signs there are hand-painted, and this one was particularly unassuming. Parking a borrowed bike against the side of the house, I met the venerable Rudolph Coleman (pictured above). Cole-mahn, as he's known, moved to the village when he was only three months old. That was 1942 or so, when a hurricane destroyed his family home and in fact all of the Newtown settlement further north. Villagers traveled in 40' dugout canoes to the next convenient spot and that became Hopkins, accessible only by water back in the day. Coleman gave me a tour of his shop, a lovely spot with an alligator in the lagoon under a noni fruit tree where a three-foot iguana was hanging out. He likes it better than a building because outside he's connected to nature. He's there when materials are available for building, when he's not with his grand kids, or when he's not giving talks on the history of Hopkins.
Closer to the beach, the Lebeha Drumming Center, north side in Hopkins, is a few mud puddles and one giant pot licker (street dogs adopted and chained to the porch as guardians) up the lane from Arletta's place. She's an elegant elderly African-American from North Carolina who grows collards in pots on her front porch eight feet off the sand up on stilts. We spent a week a few doors down from her, lodged in a tiny ocean-view house built by Mennonites. Pretty much all the houses there are either prefabbed and delivered by the Mennonites, or hand built with whatever materials can be found. Ours was a few doors down from Denise McCreary's Driftwood Pizza, the most-happening spot for night life in the village.
Lebeha was founded by Jabar Lambey. Jabar learned drumming by spying on the temple, literally hiding behind bushes and peaking through walls made from palm fronds to avoid being chased away by the drummers in the Dugu rituals. After years of traveling, Jabar returned to the village to find the music had all but died. Bars were plentiful, so he turned his into a school and began teaching young folks and tourists what he knew about Garifuna rhythm. Hopkins is thought to be a center of Garifuna culture in Belize, and his school helps hold that claim to fame.
Coleman tells me the young people in the village just don't understand the music and culture. He says the young ones are ignoring the old ways, values, even the language he grew up with there in the village. And Jabar tells me the old people don't teach the young ones, so the traditions are becoming lost. A prevailing laissez-faire island vibe results in no one doing much of anything in general, and cultural preservation seems a victim of that mindset, too. The olders say the youngers don't know it. The adults say the elders don't teach it. The youngers seem to huff as they check their flip phones for texts and say 'we got this already'.
It's disheartening to see these traditions diminishing. Globalization isn't always good. The Garifuna are actually on the UNESCO World Heritage list; fewer than 500k of them live world-wide. These conversations were a good reminder to me that it's not enough to grow older. We must also choose to become an elder, to take responsibility for teaching the younger ones and for carrying on the values and traditions we believe important.