The worn hands of the drummer beat down, steadily thumping out a bass rhythm. The treble drum’s quick counter rhythm calls out from across the circle. Maracas rattle a quick shake for embellishment. Infectious call-and-response choruses rise up from the edges of the circle. The dancers ebb and flow like the tide, and the entire group seems to move as one to the entrancing beat. This is traditional Punta music, the cornerstone of the Belizean music scene.
Native to the Garifuna people of Central America, Punta blossomed from the song and dance of African slaves who arrived in South America on two shipwrecked slave ships off the coast of St. Vincent in 1635. The slaves migrated to Belize and mingled their culture with that of the Caribbean people living there. An energetic, catchy, contagious musical style evolved – the same style you can still hear today.
Despite the long history of Punta in Belize, its origins and development are hard to trace. By some strange coincidence, almost every Punta song has the same composer: Anonymous. Every song by “Anonymous” manages to communicate both the joys and sorrows of the Garifuna people and the strong community focus of their culture. The bright, happy chords and vibrant drumbeats of Punta music typically act as a contrasting backdrop to melancholy lyrics. For example, this traditional song, Brown Skin Gyal:
Brown skin gyal stay home and mind baby
Am going away, in a sailing boat
And if ah don’t come back
Throw way di damn baby
Europeans introduced a number of instruments to Belizean culture, and from this influx of foreign sounds, another form of music developed: brukdown, also commonly called Kriol or boom-and-chime. Brukdown music originated in Belizean logging camps, mixing traditional tunes with guitars, banjos, an accordion, and the most unique instrument of them all – a donkey’s jawbone. A row of dried-out teeth rest in the almost wishbone-shaped jaw; the musician can play it one of two ways: either run a stick up and down the teeth, or swat the end of the jaw to make all the old teeth rattle at once.
The music of Belize continues to evolve with its people. While rooted in the traditional Punta style, a new genre of music in Belize known as Punta Rock is adding fresh kick and color to the modern music scene. Punta Rock keeps the bass and treble drum beats of traditional Punta, as well as the call-and-response pattern of the music, while fleshing out the sound with additional instruments and vocal arrangements. Moving beyond the drum circles of the past, Punta Rock is sparking an international dance craze, not only in Belize, but all over the world. Andy Palacio, the locally-proclaimed Father of Punta Rock, brought Garifuna to the front of Belize’s musical stage with his creative fusion of traditional and modern Belizean music.
Sadly, Palacio passed in 2008, but local musicians carry on his legacy, Punta Rocking their way to fame inspired by his musical innovation. To experience this genre to its fullest, head to Dangriga in the Stann Creek District, Belize’s culture capital and the birthplace of Punta Rock in the early 1980s. Artists in this region continue to marry traditional and modern influences to create fresh musical styles.
Music in Belize transcends “pastime” – it’s a way of life. It emanates from every corner. Thumping out traditional beats, turning the street into a dance floor, Belizeans consider music a way to honor the past and maintain their national identity. And while giving a shout-out (often literally) to their ancestors, Belizeans continue making original music in the present tense. Celebrations throughout the year feature music as a guest of honor. Drum circles, impromptu beach parties, and jam sessions bring people together.