Punta Rock Becomes the Beat of Belize : Music: The form is catching on in foreign markets and among world music enthusiasts in Britain and the U.S.


An addictive dance music called punta rock has become the beat of Belize and a symbol of pride to one of the world's most dispossessed people.

T-shirts demanding "Punta Till You Drop" deck souvenir shops in Belize City. Radio stations and music store speakers fill the streets with the Caribbean rhythms of a music created by the Garifuna people of this English-speaking country.

But the punta rock's foreign breakthrough has come from a Spanish-language band called Banda Blanca in neighboring Honduras, whose "Sopa de Caracol" won Latin music awards and was a hit in the Hispanic market.

It's a typical turn of events for the Garifuna, who have been coming out on the short end of history for hundreds of years.

The heirs of escaped African slaves married to Caribbean Indians, the Garifuna were driven from their island homes in the 18th Century for siding with the French against the British colonial rulers. They wound up in remote areas of Honduras and Belize, where their Arawak-based language is still spoken.

Garifuna musicians say their time may be coming at last, partly because of Banda Blanca's success and growing interest in punta rock among world music enthusiasts in Britain and the United States.

"It's good-time party music. It's very accessible. Most of it's in English, for heavens sake," said CC Smith, publisher of the Los Angeles-based world music magazine the Beat.

She described the music as "soca with a twitch," referring to the hot Caribbean dance music that merged U.S. soul music with island calypso.

Hundreds of people recently gathered at a thatched-roof dance hall here, on the seaside outside Belize City, for a rollicking performance by Sounds Incorporated, a band led by Chico Ramos, who wrote "Sopa de Caracol" ("Conch Soup").

Punta rock is rooted in traditional Garifuna punta music, an African-based call-and-response played on drums made from tree trunks and animal hides.

Musicians here agreed that the rock version was born about a decade ago when an artist named Pen Cayetano gathered friends together and started playing rhythms on turtle shells they had brought him to paint.

One of Cayetano's songs, the title of which translates into "Let There Be No Shame," became a sort of anthem for Garifuna pride, according to Andy Palacio, a community college teacher turned punta rock musician.

"That was one of the factors that led to a breakdown of the barriers," to self-assertion by the Garifuna, who had been looked down upon even in their native Belize, Palacio said.

"To me it came as a philosophy and I identified with it," he said.

Ramos and others began putting guitar, bass and synthesizer to the rhythm and the music grew popular in dance halls in Belize and among Belizan musicians living in the United States.

But popularity in a New Hampshire-sized country of 200,000 doesn't carry much weight in the music business. The Beat recently referred to Palacio as "Belize's first superstar." Yet his tapes sell fewer than 10,000 copies, mostly in the United States.

Ramos, a punta rock pioneer, doesn't have a record contract and only recently re-formed his band.

"I'm 30 now . . . it's now or never," said Ramos' drummer Bernard Higino, who played with Cayetano's early groups. "It's at the point where I want my share."

The musicians here expressed mixed feelings about Banda Blanca's success: happiness at the attention drawn to punta rock; irritation that non-Garifuna musicians were making most of the profits.

"I can appreciate they beat us to the Spanish part of the world, but to the English part of the world?" said Palacio, noting that Banda Blanca's music had become popular at world music clubs in Britain.

"There's nobody can play punta like we can," said Ramos' keyboardist-arranger Harold Thompson.

The frantic crowd on the dance floor seemed to agree.

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