Hopkins, Belize - A little voice comes out of the summer night, and once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see its owner clearly. A little boy is standing next to me, his smile as wide as a hammock strung between two palm trees.
"Are you here for the drumming?"
"Yes," I reply. "Are you a drummer?"
"No, I'm a dancer!" he squeals and runs off, all 31/2 feet of him in huge baggy shorts and a white T-shirt that swim on him. It turns out four-year-old Davis, the one-man welcome wagon at the Lebeha Drumming Center in the southern Belize seaside town of Hopkins, is both a Garifuna dancer and a drummer.
The Garifuna, an ethnic group with a dramatic history, trace their roots back 300 years to group of Africans headed for slavery in the New World. When the boat carrying them sank, the shipwrecked survivors escaped to Saint Vincent Island in the Caribbean, where they mixed with the native population.
They eventually adopted the Carib language but continued to hold onto many of their African traditions, including their musical inspiration.
Later, the ruling British banished the Garifuna from Saint Vincent, leaving them with no choice but to seek a new home. A mass exodus led to the creation of Garifuna villages on other Caribbean islands and along the coasts of southern Belize, Guatemala and northern Honduras.
My husband and I follow the little boy's route under the swishing of palm trees toward some weak lights.
A variety of drums and other instruments hang under the thatched roof of a large hut. We find a man and a few kids, including our new-found friend Davis, sitting in almost total darkness. Jabbar Lembey greets us warmly and turns on some lights. He explains that the kids who drum are playing basketball and should be here soon. While we wait, Davis entertains us with his own drumming technique, using a scruffy wooden table as an instrument.
Dorothy Pattersen, an expat from Vancouver, walks by with an armful of freshly laundered sheets. She and Lembey, her husband, run the centre. In addition to the drumming, they also have a small café and a cabana they rent out to tourists. I ask her what Lebeha means. She says it means "the end" and then explains how it all began.
"Tourists staying with us would ask where they could go to see Garifuna drummers, and we'd send them to Dangriga, the main city in the area, where drummers gather to play for tourists. There wasn't anyone in the area doing this sort of thing, so that's when Jabbar started the centre. He feels it's important for the kids to learn drumming."
Lebeha's been operating for a year, to great success.
Everyone's welcome, and no payment is asked of participants. The centre runs on donations and goodwill.
Some lanky teenagers sporting basketball jerseys arrive. They grab their instruments and the drumming begins. We listen to the frenetic beat and watch the drummers' masterful hands. As musicians begin to sing, Davis jumps up, swaying his little hips to the rhythm with a trance-like look on his face. A few dancers join him, but it's clear that he's the star as he swoops from one side of the hut to the other in large sideways arcs.
Our feet begin moving, and before we know it we're out on the floor trying to dance along. We're not doing very well, but no matter. I think we've just discovered the soul of Garifuna in this simple hut in southern Belize.
This is what Lebeha is all about. The kids have a blast playing traditional drums and learning some groovy dance moves, but what's being passed on to the young Belizeans are the traditions of their ancestors.
We say our goodbyes and head out. The drummers' music begins again, following us to our car and right to the outskirts of town as the wind blows warmly.