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