Roatan’s Musical Evolution
A Return to the Roots

March 1st, 2010
by John Morris Illustrated by Barbara Morris


A traditional Garifuna drum photographed near Punta Gorda. Photo by Benjamin Roberts

A traditional Garifuna drum photographed near Punta Gorda. Photo by Benjamin Roberts

Two hundred and thirteen years ago, Roatan was uninhabited. The 5000 “Black Caribs”, now known as Garifuna who were abandoned here by the British on a cold February day in 1797 brought the first man-made sound the island had heard in years since the abandonment of the pirate colony of old Port Royal, the Garifuna Drum. Predominately used in celebrations and ceremonies, the hardwood shell covered in animal skin is the backbone of the percussion-based Punta dance still performed to this day. But what has happened to the music in Roatan in the following years is truly a unique evolution, a combination of events unlike any other island in the Caribbean giving Roatan a vibrant, though at times odd, mixture of musical styles and genres. It was Plato who said “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul”, and the musical soul of Roatan is very much alive.

Certainly the British occupancy of Roatan through the 1800’s played a major role in the island’s musical heritage, not only due to the introduction of Protestant Christianity which is heavily musical, but also in language. Being predominately English speaking, there was a natural separation of the island music and culture from the Spanish speaking mainland, one that continues to this day. For the Garifuna descendants, the hymns in the Church were the first exposure to music with English lyrics and they were proud of their distinction from the mainland. As the music developed outside of the congregation, there became two distinct types of music-“in the Church” and “in the world”. Obviously, the music “in the Church” has remained relatively undisturbed, but the music “in the world” on the island of Roatan began a fantastic journey.

When someone visits the island of Roatan for the first time, the presence and popularity of American country music seems somewhat strange and out of place for a Caribbean island. Conway Twitty and Alan Jackson, twanging on the radio while riding in a taxi to West Bay are quite unexpected, but for the islanders, they are heroes. How did country music find its way here? The answer was simple; fisherman and jukeboxes. The merchant seaman who fished the Gulf of Mexico collected and traded for 45 rpm records with the Americans they worked with, bringing the records back to island and playing them in the island jukeboxes, also known as “Rock-Olas”. This combined with the only English-speaking radio station available on the AM dial, Radio Belize, which also played a heavy rotation of country music, led to a popularity that remains today. Mainland stations spoke and played mostly salsa and maranga in Spanish, something islanders often found foreign and not part of their culture. Radio Belize had entertaining DJ’s such as Ed Coleman and great show content available 24 hours a day. The islanders identified with Belize (formerly British Honduras) as they shared the same colonization history and language. Radio Belize shut down in 1998 and its equipment was absorbed into the other local stations, but the station lives on in the memory of many islanders today.

The history of live music in Roatan is not written and there are a very few photographs. Interviews with those who remember reveal a spider web of musicians and singers often switching bands weekly depending on who was available to make the gig. There was a definite division of west and east in the music scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s with Sandy Bay and Oak Ridge being the main “hot spots” for live music. In Oak Ridge, names like Ray Kirkwood (guitar), Leeker McNab (vocals), Elishah Brown (drums), Lee Arnold (drums), Weewart Pandy (drums) Junior Bodden, Sherwin Greenwood and Kenny Grant were associated with bands such as The Flameboys and The Rockys. In Sandy Bay, the most notable names in the music scene were George Coleman (banjo) and Norman James (guitar and saxophone). Others included Leon Conner (bass), Darlington Stewart (keyboards) Elroy Hydes (trombone), Sam Welcome and Junior Grant. Bands in the east included The Sandy Bay Band, The Tanner Band and the Early Bodden Band. Gigs for the bands included weddings, Easter celebrations and of course live venues in bars and restaurants for tourists and locals. The bands, complete with drums and bass, consisted of 5 or 6 members and often played country music. As popularity of the bands and tourism grew, gigs stretched out of the traditional areas into such places as Milton Bight, St Helene, Diamond Rock and Calabash Bight, not to mention Coxen Hole which was quickly becoming a late night hip hop spot.

Among all the musicians mentioned above, no family has carried on the tradition of music as much as the descendants of Norman James. Born in 1921 on the island, Norman has left a legacy in Sandy Bay that continues today. Norman’s elder son Walter is now the heart and soul of Roatan’s most notable music family and has seen the evolution of live music as the tourist trade began to explode. Walter has worked at Fantasy Island, Palmetto Bay and most recently at Anthony’s Key Resort, all three being some of the first to offer live music to tourists. According to Norman, the problem is that the resorts did not want country music played so they had to learn more traditional “island” music such as reggae and soca which was more expected from the tourists. Not his favorite, said Norman, but if it pays the bills he will play it!

Walter James, the Family's Musical Patriarch.

Walter James, the Family's Musical Patriarch.

Norman has kept the music alive in his family with his youngest brother Sheldon, his sons Joseph and Jimmy. The James family has never had traditional music lessons, they simply pass down what they know and learn by watching other musicians. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the face of Roatan’s music scene was to change once again with the introduction of the electric keyboard. The “James Gang” quickly jumped on board since one man could now provide the sound of a whole band in a live performance as this new tool could electronically produce bass and drums. This meant more money for the one man performance as it did not have to be split between four or five guys and more exposure as more gigs could be taken on by all the various James family who had mastered the keyboard. Both Norman and Jimmy make it clear that the style and method that they were forced into was purely economic and is not in their heart and soul. This feeling was recently reinforced when the James family was invited to play at the Help for Haiti concert at the Mega Plaza Mall. It was the first time they were able to play in a full band, including live bass and drums, and were allowed to play what they wanted-country music! Since the event, Jimmy feels revitalized and is determined to continue this path for the future of his music to show the world the true roots of Roatan music and his family legacy. They have all the musicians they need, just not all the instruments. Keyboards and guitars are plentiful in the James family, but not drums and bass. Jimmy says he will find a way somehow or another!

In 1973, a twenty two year old young man from Chicago named Bobby Rieman arrived in Roatan and introduced yet another sound into the island mix, the harmonica or mouth harp. Traditionally a fan of the blues, Bobby became intrigued with another kind of music he heard on the island, reggae, and quickly began to mix the harp into the local sound creating yet another unique genre in Roatan. Bobby has seen many changes and outside influences to the music on the island, and is the unofficial historian for what has happened in the last 37 years. He is passionate for his own music as well as the music of the islanders and continues to lend his support when needed. Over the years, he has taught himself to play the guitar and sing, recorded two CD’s, and is currently very active in the local live music scene. Along with the various James family bands, Bobby Rieman and the Tunu band are the longest running live acts on Roatan. In case you were wondering what a “Tunu” is, Bobby explains that it’s a handmade rubber ball peeled off a rubber tree in La Ceiba. The old joke is, if you asked a girl to dance and she said no, you were “bounced like a Tunu!” Certainly, there is a lot of bounce left in Bobby!

Kristopher Goldman brought his unique style to Roatan in 1998, intent on opening a music school with the help of established family on the island. Though the project did not come to fruition, Kristopher did not give up on his dream of living and playing his music in the Caribbean and stayed in Roatan. Eventually, he began to teach kids on his own using his musical skills and knowledge gained at the North Carolina School of the Arts. With his own studio in Sandy Bay, Kristopher has helped record his students as well as produce his most recent CD with his group Cultura. With skills ranging from writing music and lyrics to recording and production, Kristopher is a jack of all trades when it comes to music and is one of the few that makes performing and creating a full time job on the island. Like Bobby, Kristopher loves to blend traditional island styles in his music often involving local musicians and blending languages in his compositions.

Brion James landed in Roatan in 1999 in an attempt to escape the music business in Los Angeles after quite a successful career. The idea was to get out of the music business, he says, but not to get out of music. For Brion, playing music just wasn’t fun any more and so his departure. What he found when he arrived, was an island completely void of live rock music. One of his first ventures on his new musical journey on the island was fusing live guitar with hip hop DJ’s in the style of Jean Elan, the famous DJ from Ibiza. Never had the island of Roatan heard this combination! This was the beginning of live rock and roll in Roatan, something brand new for the island. Live acoustic gigs followed until a chance meeting with Chris Biggs and Aaron Daniels which led to Roatan’s first rock & roll band, The Scallywags. Over the years, the members and names of the bands have changed, but Brion has consistently entertained thousands of tourists and locals with his amazing talent. Currently, the band is called The West End Players consisting of Billy Cribb on bass and Konrad Peter on drums. Brion also occasionally pairs with Argentinean Pia Flores for Spanish style melodies and ballads and bossanova. Though the stage is considerably smaller, Brion is happy that he is playing music for the right reasons now and has no regrets. Brion’s influence and knowledge in recording and production have touched many islanders and ex-pats over the years, producing CD’s for Bobby Rieman, local vocalist Canario, and the Steel Pan Alley players to name a few. For the future, he will continue to play, raise bees and teach kids music at The Sandy Bay Alternative School. His dream is to have an educational center of his own for the advancement of musical talent on the island. Would he go back to the United States to live? Brion smiles and simply says “never”.

Like Brion James, Scott Haynes became burned out with the Los Angeles music scene. Despite a career that included touring the country with a very successful cover band, Cyclone, touring as a guitarist for the Beach Boys, working as a sound engineer with Brian Wilson and groups such as The Go-Gos, and writing, recording and producing his own rock opera as well as his daughter Harmony’s band No Harm, Scott had had enough. A sailor at heart, Scott and his wife Kristen had seen almost all the islands in the Caribbean except Roatan. Six years ago they came here and realized this was the place for them. It was close to the mainland and easy to get to but most of all, they saw that the culture of the island was still in place unlike many of the overly exposed touristic destinations elsewhere in the Caribbean. Scott sold all his musical equipment and designated himself a retired full time beach bum. Of course it did not last. At the time, their daughter, Harmony, was pursuing her own musical career in Los Angeles and Scott and Kristen did not want to disturb that though Harmony was having second thoughts about her career choice. On their way to New Zealand, Harmony and her husband Drew stopped in Roatan to see what is was all about. Three months later, Harmony and Drew joined the family on Roatan, permanently. Scott introduced Harmony to the music scene in Roatan and before he knew it, Scott was rebuilding his studio, this time on the island. Scott dabbled with several bands and in 2008-9, the band “Luz” consisting of Scott, Harmony and Barb Pons was recorded and produced. Following Harmony’s pregnancy, the latest (and currently performing band), Lyin’ Fish, was formed with Mark Havey on bass and Dave Barons on drums. Scott is also happy to be playing music just for the fun of it and shares Brion’s feelings about returning to the United States. Scott has also lent his knowledge of production and recording to local artists including local Hip Hop sensation, King Squad and has plans to begin recording new music in the future.

Brion James rocking the house every Friday night in West End.

Brion James rocking the house every Friday night in West End.

There are so many other bands and performers that could be mentioned. There is “2Candoo” (or maybe 3) with Ron Bobbette from Ontario, Canada at the helm (sounding more than a bit like Cat Stevens), joined by Dave Barons on drums (also from Canada) and Norbert Pretnicki ( from Poland) on bass, playing original tunes and covers in a beautiful folk genre. Occasionally you may see Joel Escalona, a solo Latin style guitarist originally from Venezuela, or the The Peperoncino Band with Franco, Maurilio, Juan and Luca pumping some very cool and unique Jazz. Valentin Mauri, Marc Millar and Alex Poirier have been seen live on guitar and Patti McCulla has started playing small venues again with brilliant renditions of folk and blues mixed with original tunes. The list goes on and on…

In Gravel Bay on the south side of the island just past the baseball field in the community of Colonia de las Brisas, a new music genre (at least to Roatan) is being taught and created at The Steel Pan Alley under the skillful and dedicated eye of Deborah Prieskop, a retired California schoolteacher. After 38 years of teaching music in elementary and junior high school, her music programs were cut due to the “No Child Left Behind” program. Deborah took all her savings and bought property, built a school and stocked them with steel pans built by Leroy Williams, a premier builder of pans. Deborah teaches sixteen kids ( for free) every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to play the Steel Pans which are much more complicated than you would think! There are lead pans, double pans, triple pans and bass pans all with specific parts in a composition – when played together, they produce a beautiful harmonious sound. Deborah’s goal is not only teaching the children a musical skill, but to also give them something unique that is their “own” on this island of growing musical diversity. Deborah is strict in her teaching methods and will not tolerate absence from her class unless it is related to family or school. Family first, school second, pans third is her motto and the kids know it! Alex, one of her students, describes Miss Deborah as having the ability to get the “stubbornness” out of a kid, a common trait in Roatan’s young males. He said that sometimes he cannot sleep in anticipation of the next day’s lesson. When asked how she chooses her students, Deborah says her students are the ones who “show up”. To make it a little easier, Deborah has organized a pickup point at the cruise ship docks to get everyone to the school. Some kids walk almost an hour to get to the pickup point. We found the kids polite and talented and were treated to a five song concert with a wide mix of musical selections from Billy Jean to Wipe Out. I have to admit, Wipe Out was my favorite! And thus again, the soul of Roatan music is taking another turn, this time keeping alive a Trinidad treasure on our island!

The Voice apologizes to all those artists, musicians, singers, DJs and enthusiasts that are not covered in this journey through Roatan’s rich musical past and present. There simply was not enough time or more importantly space to cover all corners. That being said, on this small island there exists something that is probably not found on any other Caribbean island – a diversity second to none thanks to a unique past and a very interesting future. Roatan offers music lovers a chance to get back to their musical roots and to be heard. The people who play, create and listen to music on this island are as diverse as the music they represent and that is a good thing. If variety is the spice of life, then music on Roatan is on fire. [/private]

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