“…without identity there could be no healing”
With its mix of Mayan, Mestizo, African and Creole heritage, Belize has a musical tradition of its own but with dancehall, reggae and soca the preferred choice of music on the airwaves, the indigenous sounds are at risk of being lost. Alexander Evans is aiming to avoid that.
The musician plans to document the country’s musical history and teach the youth about their culture through his Belize Afro-Indigenous Institute for the Visual and Performing Arts.
Evans, 33, is in the process of establishing the non-profit which staged its first show, Sambai, for the country’s first official Emancipation holiday on August 1.
The virtual concert featured a performance from a band called Drums not Guns.
The band was founded by Musa Shaheed, a CARICOM Youth Ambassador who shares Evans ambitions to preserve Belizean culture.
Evans, who helped to refine the band’s sound, said Shaheed started the band for the same reason he founded the non-profit, to use music and culture for social outreach and to create a sense of identity.
“We are lacking in our sense of identity,” he said, quoting his friend, Lou Lyons of Freetown Collective who told him that without identity there could be no healing.
“As communities and nations, we need healing if for no other reason than being affected by colonialization. So the first step in community healing, finding viable, sustainable sources of income for artistes, having Belizean music becoming more known, means first and foremost going back to the music of our ancestors, and bridging the gap and filling in the blank spaces where it was not developed and where it was not modernised,” he said.
Evans said it was with this perspective he left his nine-year job at the Institute of Culture last year to pursue his passion.
Evans, who studied for a BA in Musical Arts at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Trinidad, for three years said his time in Trinidad played a major role in fuelling his direction.
A musician and composer who plays multiple instruments including pan and bass guitar, Evans joined one of Belize’s premier pan sides, the Pantempters Steel Orchestra, at the age of 18.
Around 2013, he was invited to start a pan side called Pandemonium that would serve as a social outreach programme targeting youth from at-risk backgrounds. The band was a collaboration between the Institute of Culture and a social agency called Restore Belize with funding from UNICEF.
He said up until that point, a lot of the steel bands in Belize were from tertiary level institutions so there was a certain level of affluence associated with steelpan music.
“So one of the goals was to say this instrument was not created by the elite, this instrument was created by the downtrodden in response to oppression and that is where the power of the instrument lies and let’s try and see if we could democratise access to the instrument,” he said.
Through that experience, he was able to visit T&T for the first time in 2016 for Carnival.
“The experience was eye-opening,” he declared.
“Steelpan has existed in Belize since 1963…but even with that we here are accustomed to seeing 30-35 players max. So for me, it was mind-blowing to see so many players. I compare it to tasting a real mango for the first time when you are only accustomed to mango flavouring. It’s like wow, this is what mango is supposed to taste like?”
One thing that stood out, he said, was the heightened sense of patriotism and the love for local music which was blaring from every street corner and radio station.
“There is not really a time in Belize we would embrace our own music like that,” he said.
Evans returned to T&T to play with Silver Stars for Panorama the next year and made a decision to apply to UWI because he felt he needed to expand his own knowledge to continue teaching pan in Belize.
He graduated from UWI with First Class Honours, the Newman Alexander Prize for the Most Outstanding Musical Student and the Beryl McBurnie Prize for the Most Outstanding Overall Student from the Arts Department.
Before heading back home, Evans served as head of the Belizean delegation at Carifesta and musical director for the closing ceremony due to the work he did with Best Village.
He said his goal upon returning to Belize was to grow his steel band and raise the level of the band musically as well as do some more work with Belizean music.
Belize’s traditional music includes that of the Garifuna people such as Paranda, Sambai and Gunjai as well as Bruk Down, which is broken-down calypso mixed with reggae. The music, Evans explained, is driven by drums.
As he embarks on his mission to preserve and promote the culture, one of the first projects Evans hopes to have completed by year’s end is the publication of music books with notations of some of their songs and rhythms.
He said the main goal is to teach music, dance, drama and visual art as well but in a manner that puts their musical expression at the top of the hierarchy.
He explained: “These same systems that place white, male German-speaking composers at the top of the hierarchy place the people who look like us and who come from the places we come from and the music that is representative of our people at the bottom of that hierarchy, so we strive to offer the same level of musical expertise, the same level of expression, the same caliber of expression in the same way but flips that hierarchy on its head.”