An Afternoon with Paul Nabor

“The National Treasures of Belize are its people of culture. Culturally, the Garifuna people of Dangriga, Belize are most interesting. […] The oldest male singer is PAUL NABOR. Make sure that you photograph him, he is the national treasure since Andy Palacio died.”

When I reached Punta Gorda that month of September 2011, I kept the wise words of my mentor and renowned photographer Chester Higgins in the back of my mind. I had shared with him the good news that my next gig was taking me to Belize, for three months of coverage as a freelance writer, blogger and photographer.

In Punta Gorda, my host Bruno was well-connected and had lived in the area for decades, so I had a hunch he might be able to help me. The minute I mentioned to him that I would love to meet Paul Nabor, he said, in the way in which he always did when a guest had a request: “No problem!”

We stopped by Nabor’s house that very evening–it was dark and I could barely see where we were, but I spotted him from the car. He seemed frail, yet alert, sitting in an alley beside his humble wooden home, chatting with a friend. My host stepped out and told him about this writer who is with the BTB and wanted to meet him.

I heard the reply: “Sure. Come tomorrow. 2 o’clock.”

I wondered if it would really happen, but I was so excited that I started picturing how I would photograph him, and then wondered if he would let me photograph him.

The next afternoon of September 5 is one I’ll never forget. After an hour with Leela Vernon at her home–the Kriol cultural icon welcomed us with open arms–we ended back in that alley by Nabor’s house, with a case of beer for our host.

He greeted us with a smile, and then left the alley and his bench to go inside his home. It was another scorching day in Punta Gorda. Was he coming back? Perhaps he was tired? After all, he was 83 years old. We dared not say anything, and waited.

Five minutes later, he reappeared… with his guitar.

And there, I spent the most blissful afternoon I could have hoped for with this cultural icon, sitting on a wooden bench directly in front of the artist, listening to his life stories and his travels abroad. He had a gift for storytelling. I was so enthralled that I barely noticed the sweat dripping down my neck, in contrast with Nabor’s dry face.

While tuning up his guitar, he nodded to his friend to accompany him on drums. The friend didn’t speak English, only Spanish, but he quickly positioned himself and soon, they were both playing in harmony, while Nabor sang the most haunting paranda melodies, accompanied by the occasional smile and piercing gaze whenever he stared straight into my eyes.

He didn’t mind me photographing him he said; I think he felt amused that I was a female photographer.

“If I had known you were coming today, I would tell my buddies to come around so that we can give you a good enjoyment.” Paul Nabor said.

“Oh no – this is great – this is even better!” I said to him. A once-in-a-lifetime gift and blessing.

“OK,” he smiled.

His stories and his voice were transporting. There was a lady love, he said. But after a little while she ran away.

“What did I do? I didn’t beat her, I didn’t scold her. So I leave her alone too, I forgot about it. So then she came back. But it was too late.”

We all laughed.

“I told her,” he said, pointing to his guitar, “this is my girlfriend, this is my wife, and everything. I am satisfied.”

We talk about his career, his music.

“Nobody did paranda. It’s God that gave me the talent to put it all together. It’s God, nobody else. You see I play my guitar? Nobody teach me how to play guitar. I sit down and watch three men playing guitar. And I love this guitar, the sound of it. And I still have that guitar here in my hand, from 18 years old. This guitar is older than my daughter. She was born in 1954 and I got this guitar in 1951. I take care of my things. This one I got it from England, a friend gave it to me.”

Towards the end of our afternoon, I asked him if he still had his very first instrument.

He got up, and walked into another room. Five minutes later, he reappeared, a Yamaha guitar in hand. He let me photograph him with it, and in the near future I will share those photos (they are on a hard drive that I’m not currently carrying on me).

“The first guitar I ever traveled with, and I still have it!” he said, stretching out his arms and putting the item on full display. “Nice guitar. And I worked with it all of Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Mexico.”

We bonded in a way I can’t really explain, in just a few hours. But I believe this is what he did for whomever wanted to listen to his music and be inspired. He was giving, even at his age, and loved paranda.

As we were about to leave, he mentioned Andy Palacio.

“He was a clever guy. He wanted me to stay to his side but I said I can’t. At 64 I went to France, 65 to Germany, 66 to Italy, and so… till I got to 81. They still want me to go, I said no. I feel it in my body. I had enough. My body is tired now. We all are human, human being.”

When we wrapped up, I told him about my plans for a Faces of Belize exhibit. I wanted to include him in my portraits. Would be able to attend one in Belize City? He tapped me on the back, ever so gently, with a twinkle in his eye and said:

“I’ll be there.”

The above conversation was transcribed from my voice recordings of Paul Nabor that afternoon. I’ve deleted many files from my i-Phone over the years, but kept these all this time. That’s how special this day was, and how special he was.

I hope you enjoy this recording, one of several songs he performed for us live that day.

All text and photography on this blog may not be reproduced anywhere in any format without prior written permission. Copyright Lebawit Girma All Rights Reserved.

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