In Belize, a celebration of liberation

A dancer holds the crowd's attention during Wanaragua, or Jonkonnu - a festival during the Christmas season, in Dangriga, Belize.
(Ericka Hamburg)
Special to The Times

The drummers form a semicircle and settle into their chairs; the rhythm thunders to life. Street dogs scatter like bullets.

A dancer jumps before the drummers like a mad strutting bird and jackhammers the ground with his feet. His tall, feathered headdress spins as he turns; his white shirt becomes translucent with sweat, and bands of shells around his knees rattle and shake. Red lips, a pencil mustache and doll eyes are painted on his mask of pink wire mesh.

Arms outstretched, he arches toward the drummers and dictates their rhythms with his frenetic footwork. Then, in a flourish, he leaps from the circle of attention, and a new dancer replaces him.

He also addresses the drummers with his body, and they shift rhythm in response. With each kick, each strut, tiny shells fly from his knee bands and land in the dusty street, retrieved by eager youngsters watching from the sidelines.

Welcome to Jonkonnu, a masquerade found in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean during the Christmas season. Unlike Carnival, this festival has secular roots; when Caribbean colonial masters loosened restrictions on slaves, the slaves then entertained and parodied them with costumed characters and musical processions.

Last winter, on a sultry Christmas morning, I found myself in Dangriga. This rough-and-tumble town is the cultural capital of the Garinagu, also known as Black Caribs.

In the 17th century, shipwrecked West Africans and aboriginal Arawaks found one another on St. Vincent and intermarried; thus began Garinagu society. Although Spain was the ruler of record, the British arrived with ambitions to farm cotton and sugar, with the unconsenting labor of island inhabitants.

The Garinagu (now known more commonly by their language, Garifuna) successfully fought off the British until 1797, when they were forced into exile, set adrift with a loss of thousands of lives. The survivors landed first on Becquia and Roatán and, in 1823, migrated to the mainland, settling in pockets of Honduras, Guatemala and the southern coast of Belize.

With a week to witness Jonkonnu and other seasonal traditions, I rented a beachfront room at Pal’s Guesthouse and set out along Dangriga’s main street, St. Vincent.

A crush of dancers, drummers, singers and wannabes had converged on a corner, and I fell right in. Flag bearers at the lead, we moved as one, like a many-legged organism, stopping in backyards, on driveways, under raised porches or drying laundry, to perform by request.

Jonkonnu participants are a multi-generation brotherhood of dancers, perfecting their routines over years. Some return from outside Belize to perform. Here, and in other Garifuna villages -- Hopkins, Seine Bight and Punta Gorda -- Jonkonnu brings both joy and catharsis: the formal black-and-white costumes, headdresses, European-featured masks and frenzied marching steps evoke and mock an old nemesis, the English military.

As we moved from house to house, some money and some rum were exchanged. The ritual would repeat on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), and Día del Rey (Jan. 6).

The fete continued into darkness, when I left the crowd and headed to Val’s Laundry. Visitors gravitate here for Internet access, laundry service, fresh coffee and, my treat to myself, rum raisin ice cream.

The next day I drove about an hour south, through orange groves and rows of banana trees, to Hopkins and the Lebeha Drumming Center. Driving along a dirt road paralleling the beach, I slowed to accommodate homemade speed bumps fashioned from giant ropes.

At Lebeha (“the end”), under a handsome backyard hut, kids were putting crayons to cardboard masks and practicing drum routines for the holiday. Jabbar Lambey teaches the intricacies of Garifuna rhythms to locals, visitors from nearby resorts and serious percussion students. I chatted with Dorothy, his Canadian wife, as she cooked, orchestrated events and attended to a rescued canine.

Back in Dangriga, the streets were a caldron of motion. Roundabouts churned with the traffic of bicycles and trucks. On the beach, boys tumbled over a makeshift assemblage of tires. In mutual dares, they hurled backward from Commerce Street Bridge into the waters of Stann Creek.

On a crowded grassy common, two strapping, flower-frocked fellows gyrated in a sensuous do-si-do. A lanky, rubber-masked devil in a dress pranced in circles. Children ran laughing and screaming as a cow-horned creature with a cardboard mask and pillow-padded posterior charged them with a cane.

“It’s Two-Foot Cow!” the kids screamed.

His rumpled overcoat and sinister limping gait had an edgy feel, different from Jonkonnu. I’d found Charikinari, another seasonal masquerade, whose characters can be traced to West Africa.

In my week’s immersion, this unique mix of African and Indian language, music and folkways felt rich but fragile. Both locals and the Garifuna diaspora of New York, Los Angeles and beyond spoke of treading a tightrope between preserving tradition and succumbing to assimilation and tourism “development.”

For just the moment, I’d caught the spirit and joined a gaggle of kids to chase a two-foot cow down the road.