Yearning to bring local kids a touch of Belize

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James Lovell tuned his guitar along with the other musicians in the common room of the Biko Center while dreaming of what could happen soon. One day he hopes to be teaching dozens of children guitar, piano, saxophone, drums and other instruments in the Garifuna music of his native Belize.

“I won’t charge lessons for children,” Lovell said. “The children need to learn to keep the culture alive. If they are not exposed to the culture, they will assimilate. I’m trying to fight that.”

Garifuna culture is derived from intermarriage between Carib and Awarak tribes indigenous to the Caribbean and Africans who came to the region before Columbus. Lovell has been teaching Garifuna music in Brooklyn and the Bronx for almost twenty years. He is well known in Afro-Caribbean music circles, performing at music festivals throughout the city, including a recent Garifuna festival at Medgar Evers College earlier this month.

Lovell is adamant about promoting and preserving the Garifuna culture, which UNESCO proclaimed in 2001 as an oral and intangible heritage to humanity.

“It is not taught in schools because of the dominant culture,” Lovell said. “Kids don’t learn to speak their own language and the culture could become extinct.”

Lovell came to Brooklyn in 1990 at the age of 22 after serving in the army in Belize and the U.S. Marines at a base in North Carolina. His introduction into American culture, specifically military culture, was difficult, but he said the Marine Corps helped him learn how to survive in this country as an immigrant.

“I learned not to much because I was exposed to military life back home, but it was a stepping stone,” Lovell said.

He had been exposed to popular music such as Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and many country western artists listening to Radio Belize as well as the Garifuna Punta Rock of musician Pen Cayetano, and discovered he had an affinity for traditional Garifuna music while playing in a police band. Lovell’s first encounter with African music happened in Brooklyn.

“I realized the similarities between their music and our music with African drums,” Lovell said. “I have been toying with the thought of bringing together African music and Garifuna, playing them simultaneously, fusing them and synchronizing them.”

After forming the Garifuna Performing Arts Company and the James Lovell African Youth Ensemble, Lovell came to the Biko Center (1474 Bushwick Avenue) to teach children in the heavily Afro-Caribbean community about the music of their native culture. He has been at the Biko Center for the past year and a half and has been slowly reaching out to neighborhood institutions, including St. Thomas Episcopal Church (1405 Bushwick Avenue), an Anglican Church with a high concentration of Garifuna congregants.

“The Episcopal Church helps with outreach and allows us to perform in their auditorium for free, as often as they want,” Lovell said.

Lovell hopes to assemble a core group of young musicians in Bushwick and help them realize that their performances can both sustain their culture and serve as an economic venture. Lovell also hopes that people in East Bushwick become more involved in the political process and develop more programs focused on music.

“Bushwick is very vibrant but there is a lot of room for improvement to mobilize the community when it comes to after school programs for children,” Lovell said. “We must get involved in the decision making process.”

For more information about Garifuna lessons, contact James Lovell at 646-641-9261 or email him at

Updated 3:48 pm, October 19, 2011
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