It’s a hard “g” sound. Jabar, my instructor at the Lebeha Drumming Center, keeps repeating the word until I get it right.
“Iyeguil – raw – it means raw. Garifuna play only raw instruments – real instruments.”
He steps away and comes back with a long string of shells that he puts around his neck.
“Seen this before? These are turtle shells. We play this too, with the drum, try it!”
He takes it off and puts it around my neck. Phew. Heavy. Cured turtle shells, of different sizes to make different sounds, connected to one another with straps and hung from the neck.
He hands me a stick and I start hitting and making sounds, except it sounds so cacophonic. One of the drummers laughs.
Jabar wears another set for himself and shows me how it’s done.
Clearly, he looks way cooler doing this than I did.
“OK, ready for the drumming?”
Jabar takes the shells off me and guides me to sit under the thatch-roof space.
He points to the five or six drums we’re seated around. He tells me to pick one.
“Normally you start with the small, but it’s up to you, you can pick a big one or small one.”
I pick a big one.
He positions the drum between my calves. Ouch. The strings are rubbing against my leg.
“See I am used to this, many years of drumming. But you are new, so maybe the drum is painful on your legs.”
I turn the drum around until it fits naturally between my thighs and calves. The strings and the pegs are away from my flesh.
I don’t remember the drums I saw growing up in Cote d’Ivoire looking like these. I pull out my i-Phone and show Jabar my shot of Tony Ruption, one of the top drummers in the world and a member of the Reggae group Third World.
“Aaah! That’s a Djembe drum, different from Garifuna drum!”
So what makes this a Garifuna drum? The drum is carved and made hollow from one single piece of wood, usually mahogany. Two strings are on the top of the drum, to keep the vines in place. They’re actually guitar strings. And then the wooden pegs on the sides, used for tuning purposes. Deerskin covers the top of the instrument.
Jabar says we’ll start with the punta beat. Punta — a Garifuna and Belizean music genre unique to this part of the world, inspired by traditional African song and dance.
He starts humming as he shows me the beats.
“Doom-bigi-doom! Doom-bigi-doom! Doom-bigi-doom! Doom-bigi-doom!”
The right hand beating steady, down and bouncing back up, down and bouncing back up (doom! doom!). The left hand makes a quicker two-beat (bigi!).
Try maneuvering both hands at the same time, it’s hilariously difficult. One wants to follow the other, or stop.
But I pick it up soon enough. Jabar is smiling wide and nodding at me while still beating his drum, “Aha!! Ahaaaaa! Ahaa!”
He pauses. “Wow, you’re doing it! That’s Punta.”
When I told a college friend of mine recently that I had a drumming lesson in Hopkins, his reaction was a loud, “What? Drumming lesson? You’re African born and raised, you should be teaching them, girl!”
Classic. Especially since many of us African-born or African-raised women have never picked up or hit a drum.
Still, it doesn’t matter. It’s a beat that lives inside of us. I grew up hearing and dancing to African music – from Mali’s Ali Farka Toure ballads to Congo’s upbeat soukouss or live drumming at weddings in Cote d’Ivoire. There was always some African music playing in our house or blasting from the neighborhood store’s radio.
The drum is the root of all these genres and a symbol of the richness of the continent when it comes to music.
The younger drummer joins us now, he’s listening to me. He tells me to add some power to my beats.
“The drum is like an empty shell, you have to hit it hard to make it come alive.”
I intensify the hits, and I get what he means. The harder I hit, the deeper the sound that echoes and the greater the energy and emotion the drum transfers to my body. I hit harder and harder. Heck, I want to get up and dance now too.
So we do. Jabar starts showing me how to dance to punta. But he can only show me how the men dance – arms flexed with elbows close to the body, and the waist and feet swaying round.
The younger drummer is beating the drums for us.
The women move their hips, Jabar says. Easy.
I’m still not sure what makes it Punta, because it’s similar to how they dance in Central and West Africa.
Before long we’re swirling and shaking it at the Lebeha Drumming Center, while the drum keeps going, going and going.
To schedule your own Garifuna drumming lesson in Hopkins, visit or call the Lebeha Drumming Center. “Lebeha,” by the way, means “the end” in Garifuna; the center is located on the north end of Hopkins. You can also just stop by – they’ll be happy to have you. You get an instruction manual at the end of your class, and if you’re lucky you might also get to see Jabar making a drum from scratch.