A music studio seeks to keep the beat alive in a far-flung Afro-Caribbean enclave.
On the isolated Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, embraced tightly by green jungle in all sides, is a place called Bluefields. To get there, you start with a bumpy six-hour bus ride from the capital to a little town called Rama, and transfer onto on a motorboat for a two-hour journey down the Rio Escondido (translation: the Hidden River). “And then, you somehow arrive at a city of 60,000 people that was founded by a Dutch pirate, essentially in the middle of nowhere,” says American producer Zander Scott, who lives in Bluefields. “There’s a feeling you get here that you don’t get anywhere else.”
By now Zander would know. Five years ago, Zander and a friend, Edwin Reed-Sanchez, stepped off a taxi-boat in town in hopes of making a documentary about the Bluefields’ unique cultural blend: an English-speaking enclave in Latin America where West Indian creoles and indigenous peoples have long thrived in isolation from the rest of Nicaragua. A place where Trinidadian soca gets re-recorded in the indigenous Miskito language, where the English maypole ceremony gets flipped into an Afro-Caribbean dance party, and where American country music and Jamaican dancehall bump jointly in the club. In sum, a place like no other on Earth.
However, what Zander and Edwin found was not exactly what they were looking for. “In the process, it really became apparent that the music and the traditions are not passing on to the next generation,” says Zander. “So we realized we wanted to do something more hands on, to work with the music and reverse that process of cultural erosion.“
And so, the Bluefields Sound System was born. The idea: move down to Bluefields, build a community music studio, get young people recording music. As a result, they’d be helping to keep the centuries-old Caribbean culture flowing. Today, the studio sits across on the city’s main drag, right across from the local fire station. Through grants from the Inter-American Development Bank and a Finnish media company, Bluefields Sound System has taught piano and audio engineering workshops to local musicians, and recorded artists ranging from old-time local troubadours to young people singing dancehall and reggae.
One of the most promising artists they’ve worked with is Papa Banton. Together with fellow reggae singer Kali Boom, he has a group called Run Dun Crew, named after a kind of coconut milk seafood stew popular in the area. Although most of the reggae listened to in town comes from Jamaica, Papa Banton has managed to make a couple of local hits with Bluefields Sounds System, including “Man Love Your Woman.” “You’ll hear that one on the radio, on people’s phones, at the dancehall,” says Zander. “People are really proud to have artists that are from here, even if there aren’t many resources to promote artists’ careers beyond Bluefields.”
One of Zander and Edwin’s goals is to change that. The Run Dun Crew, who have a record called Money Tough on Bandcamp with beats by US-based producer Evan Rhodes, is one of the groups that Bluefields Sound System is trying to push abroad. As for Para Banton, he hopes his music can bring much-needed attention to the region. “People hear about Nicaragua, but they don’t know about Bluefields,” says Banton, in his Creole-tinted English. “I want to make people know that there’s a place called Bluefields. I want to represent Bluefields, and project the city.”
Bluefields’ isolation and rare cultural mix is a result of two things: a difficult geography and a topsy-turvy history. The city was founded in the 17th century as a pirate refuge for European buccaneers hostile to Spain. The British declared the entire “Mosquito Coast,” as the Caribbean side of Nicaragua was known, as their protectorate, and cozied up to the indigenous Miskito people by crowning a local leader as the Miskito king. Mixed-race, English-speaking Creoles began to populate the area, their numbers bolstered by enslaved Africans who escaped from plantations in the West Indies. The Garifuna people, themselves the descendents of both escaped slaves and native Awarak peoples, also settled in the area, coming from up the coast in present-day Honduras.
Even after the British dropped their claim on the area and the Spanish (and later, Nicaragua) took control, they mostly left the hard-to-access region alone. American fruit and lumber companies arrived in the 20th century, further solidifying the English-language culture of the region. The Americans (most of whom came from the South) also brought country music, which is still extremely popular. “I never appreciated country until I danced with a Bluefields girl to a country song,” explains Zander. “It’s a close, hug-up kind of music here.”
Spencer Hudson, a 54-year-old reggae musician from the nearby Corn Islands who goes by the nickname “Rocco”, remembers that when he was a kid, country was the principle pop music of Bluefields. “Jim Reeves, Earl Scruggs, all those guys, that’s what we played,” says Rocco. “My father was a kind of troubadour, and he’d walk all around the island playing country western songs on his guitar.”
Rocco remembers that when reggae arrived in the early 1970s, everything changed. “When I first saw a picture of Bob Marley with a big spliff in his mouth, looking like a guy from around the corner, and expressing my people’s philosophies that my grandmother told me, that was it,” says Rocco. Around that time, people from the area started getting jobs on cruise liners, and were able to pick up reggae records straight off the shelves while stopping over in Jamaica. Today, reggae is everywhere. Even the indigenous Miskito people record Caribbean music dancehall and soca in their language.
If there’s any one sound that can be identified as the tradition of Caribbean Nicaragua however, it’s maypole music. It’s a spin-off on the British maypole dance, celebrated in Carnival-style parties each May with a lilting, calypso-related style of music played on banjos and guitars. Today, only a few older musicians still know how to play the maypole songs, and the Bluefields Sound System has made it a mission to record them before they pass on. One of the greatest maypole composers, Mango Ghost, recorded an album with them even as he was dying of throat cancer.
“Most of them were old guys who lived in small shacks, people not being celebrated and with nothing to show for the history of their music,” says Zander. “A lot of the work we did was awareness. We went on the radio to raise money, we helped fix their houses. We wanted to restore their dignity as musicians, by getting them on stage to perform, printing flyers with their name on it.”
Zander and Edwin see their work as more than cultural preservation – it’s also about politics. Over the last 10 years, Spanish-speaking mestizos from the Pacific side of Nicaragua have been migrating to Bluefields to take advantage of the area’s open land and plentiful resources, leading to tensions with the area’s indigenous and creole peoples. Even though the law protects the original inhabitants’ right to their traditional lands in theory, that right can be hard to defend in practice. As a result, land is being snatched up by the outsiders. At the same time, signs and place names are being changed into Spanish.
“We’re under a new process of colonization all over again,” says Rocco. “More and more people are speaking Spanish, giving their kids Spanish names.”
For Zander, these phenomena are all connected. “Ultimately what really defends their right to their land is cultural identity,” he says. “That’s why preserving language, even preserving dancehall and reggae as a Caribbean cultural identity, is part of protecting their rights. And that’s something we’ve been learning as we go, watching the young people we’re working with. Through pride in their music and their talent, they become active in promoting the culture within the community.”
This week, after five years of running Bluefields Sound System, Zander and Edwin are dismantling their studio, and moving their gear out of the little building across from the firehouse. However, it’s not because they are giving up. They’re moving operations to a local radio station and building a network of satellite studios around the region as part of a plan to keep the project going sustainably after they move on.
“It hasn’t been easy, there was a lot of criticism at first,” says Zander. “This started by us having a love of music and Caribbean culture, and was fed by a natural process of what happened as we went along. Ultimately, we received the recognition both locally and abroad to find a way for it to continue and keep on.”