I have a tape of jungle sounds. Sometimes I put it into my computer when I’m working. It starts in silence, then dawn creeps across it like light across a sky. The trills of nameless birds, the croaks and cheeps of cicadas and tree frogs – the sounds of the Belizean rainforest are as evocative as any other memory I have of the country. I could play its score from first day to last, and never tire of it.
But for me, the sounds of Belize City are where it all began, newly arrived in the country, trying to find my feet. I remember it all so well – the roar of four-by-fours on potholed streets, the thump of punta rock from speakers stacked in open shop doorways, the cries of hustlers after dollar from the tourists. ‘Yuh lookin fu wa guide. Yuh wanna hea a song? Yuh wa I show yuh weh fu go?’
At the time there was an election under way. People on the streets were politicking. I saw their slogans on their banners, heard them calling out for change. And in the heat of evening, lying on my hotel bed, I heard a rally underway across the street. Voices carried across the air. Cheers from the rally. Music from the sea front. Night-birds whistling, full-throttled. I could hear them too.
This was my first experience of Belize, and my second was Caye Caulker. The roar of the distant reef, which was always there – how could I ever forget that, or the bird-walk with Dorothy, who taught me to follow sounds through the littoral forest, and then identify the birds who were making them; the bananaquit, the scarlet tanager, the hooded warbler, the mockingbird.
Later my landlady, Luciana, told me of a night of birds which she was once awoken by – birds of all kinds including parrots and ibexes. The north wind brought them over, blown together in a mighty cloud. The event was unique. No one on Caulker had ever witnessed anything like it. You could see their white beaks in the darkness like flashes of light. You could hear their wings beating through the rain, and hear them calling to each other.
She told the story so well I could imagine I was there. Even now at my desk as I write this, I can hear those birds calling and the beating of their wings.
After Caye Caulker, I went up to San Ignacio. There, in Crystal’s Supermarket, I heard a rare, rich bird of another sort – Paul Nabor. I stood there with headphones on. I’d never heard paranda before, and never a voice like this. There are moment, aren’t there, which change everything. And that was such a moment for me.
In my novel about Belize, ‘In the Trees’, I describe Paul Nabor’s voice rising like smoke out of darkness, and the experience of hearing him being like having the deepest, darkest, finest drink uncorked and poured down you:
‘The singing was as sweet as honey, yet there was gravel in it too. His voice was full of birds and beasts and tall white stately ceiba trees. Flowers were in his voice, and clouds of butterflies, and Kid could hear rivers flowing through the music booth, and hear people too. He could hear their voices caught up in the song, the people of Belize, and he didn’t feel lonely any more…’
So says Kid Cato – the young hero of my book, visiting Belize for the first time to try and find his dad, upon first hearing Paul Nabor.
The other musician who impacted my journey around Belize was Lucky Dube. The first time I heard him was on a bus traveling south from San Igancio with a group of gap year volunteers. The driver’s girlfriend was sitting up front with her little girl, bobbing about to the reggae music that kept being putting on. Reggae, sunshine, the disappearing foothills of the Maya Mountains over which I’d just trekked – they’re now all meshed together in my mind.
It was reggae all the way down south to the Kekchi-Mayan villages of Toledo District. But only when Lucky Dube came on did I find myself leaning across the aisle and asking, ‘Who’s that?’ Then later I heard Lucky Dube again on another bus. Somewhere on the dirt roads around Punta Gorda I heard ‘I Feel Irie’ for the first time, ringing out in contrast to anything else that got put on. ‘Do you feel like we do?’ Lucky Dube’s electrifying voice sang out. ‘We all have trouble now an’ again, know what I’m sayin…’ ‘People have troubles since the Pope was an altar boy…’, ‘No man can hide from his fears…’, ‘Since they are part of him, they always know where to find him…’, ‘Come on, walk tall…’ and, again – and again – ‘Do you feel like we do…?’
And I did. And still do. Whenever Lucky Dube’s voice rings out, I feel alive. I know now that he’s dead – tragically dead – but his voice will always have that effect.
Down in Toledo District, I stayed in the Kekchi-Mayan village of Medina Bank. My memories of that village are so rich. The rattle of the corn-mill started up before first light. Then children started chasing squawking chickens, riding turkeys, swinging from guava trees and asking ‘what’s your name’ over and over again. I remember the school bell ringing for the flag to be raised and the Belizean anthem being sung by a choir of ragged little voices. Then I remember women chattering in the river in the heat of the day, the sound of water flowing past them as they pounded their clothes on a series of flat stones. Then school was over and the children were in the river too, laughing, dive-bombing and splashing about. Then evening fell, smoke rising through thatches from all those village hearths, stars and fireflies coming out, birds falling silent and the cicadas starting up. Then finally, I remember my hosts’ voices as by candlelight they talked to me about land rights, the founding of their village, and the Mayan way of life.
I spent six weeks traveling round Belize. But if I had to choose one sound above all others, it wouldn’t come from Medina Bank, Belize City, Lucky Dube or Paul Nabor. It would come from Chiquibul. With my son, Idris, and a guide from the gap year organization, Trekforce, I trekked across that vast and beautiful wilderness to interview young British volunteers working on a conservation project in a remote location. First night out in the jungle, I lay in my hammock wondering what to expect next. All around me, the sounds of the jungle were as loud as anything I’d heard on Albert Street or the swing-bridge over Haulover Creek. So many creatures out there in the night, whistling, whooping, whirring, croaking – and then, to top it all, an incredible roaring sound that I took at first to be jaguars. But oh no. In the distance, drawing closer, howler monkeys were on the move.
Here was another of those moments which change things. Once you’ve heard howler monkeys calling to each beneath a full moon in the jungle, believe me life is never quite the same. Slowly the sound grew until it was overhead. Without as much as a rustle of a branch, those howler monkeys had moved into our camp, and now they were calling to each other to come and take a look at us. Despite the moonlight, I couldn’t see them back. But I could hear them, by God. And what a privilege.
Never mind bottling Paul Nabor and drinking him down. I want to bottle howler monkeys too. But then I want to bottle it all – the whole six week experience, which I’ll never forget. Or, at the very least, I want the soundtrack – Belize on tape so that I can have it on my computer and, every time I switch on, it’ll take me back.
To hear Lucky Dube sing ‘I Feel Irie’ click HERE.
To hear Paul Nabor sing ‘Naguya Nei’ click HERE.