Tucked into the Caribbean coast of Central America between Mexico's southern Yucatan region and Guatemala, Belize (formerly British Honduras) gained independence from Great Britain in 1981. Shortly after British forces wrested Jamaica from Spanish control in 1655, a motley array of English entrepreneurs and pirates began to settle Belize, drawn by the economic potential of the region's dyewoods and mahogany timber stands. In an otherwise Spanish-speaking Central America, Belize quickly became an ethnically diverse settlement, home to Creoles (of mixed African, European and Central American descent), African-Amerindian Garifuna, Mestizos (of mixed Mayan, Mexican and Central American heritage) and several lowland Maya groups.
Almost nothing is known of the colony's early musical history, but enslaved Africans certainly brought their expressive traditions to the logging camps set up in the interior beginning in the 1720s. The first written accounts of African drumming date to the early 19th century, as white English residents complained of gatherings in the outskirts of the capital, where slaves and freedmen congregated to dance, drum and sing through the night. Fearing that the drums served to communicate plans for slave uprisings (a recurrent feature of pre-emancipation Belize), colonial authorities unsuccessfully outlawed the activity, which spilled over into the annual Christmas revelry when slaves returned to Belize City from their logging tasks.
Oral tradition assigns the origins of brukdown and boom-and-chime music to the Belize timber camps. The music combines ribald Creole-language vocals, accordion, guitar and hand percussion in a sonic blend recalling Jamaican mento and early Louisiana zydeco. Likewise, Garifuna residents who had never been enslaved sustained their singing, drumming and dancing traditions. In the early 1980s, punta rock, a creation commonly attributed to Belizean Garifuna musician, composer and painter Delvin "Pen" Cayaetano, added the amplified guitar to the Garifuna rhythm ensemble. Today, Belizeans see punta rock's popularity throughout Central America as a positive reflection of the nation's unique identity in the region.
British police orchestras and bands, reinforced by elite classical-music education, introduced brass, woodwinds and piano to Belize. The police ensembles also incorporated accordion, guitar and banjo, the latter showing patent West African roots. Maya and Mestizo string-band music combines European guitar and violin with indigenous harps, whistles, shakers and frame-drum percussion, together with the marimba, which traces its genesis to the West African balafon. Maya musicians still fashion their own marimbas and harps from Belizean hardwoods, stringing the latter with thick nylon fishing line. Typically played on religious holidays and at community festivals, exclusively by men, as in Guatemala and southern Mexico, Belizean Maya music is unadorned, but it possesses a certain hypnotic quality reflected in the subdued mixed dancing it often accompanies.
Notable Garifuna artists include Junie Aranda, Jursino Cayetano, Pen Cayetano, Lugua Centeno, Mohobub Flores, Dale Guzman, Adrian Martínez, Paul Nabor, Andy Palacio and Gabaga Williams. Creole artists include Brad Pattico, Wilfred Peters and Leroy Young "The Grandmaster" (the country's dub-poet laureate). The only recorded indigenous musician is Kekchi Maya harpist Florencio Mess.