I had the great privilege of recording Paul Nabor, the famed parrandero of Punta Gorda. Mr. Nabor is a legend of the Garifuna parranda style music, and he is perhaps the most lauded of the diminishing number of parranderos who have serenaded generations of Garinagu. He played on stages in major cities across the world, from Rome to Mexico City. At home in Punta Gorda he is respected not only as a musician but also as the town buyai, the medium who serves in dugu ceremonies, thus commanding respect not only for his musical abilities but for his work in the spiritual realm as well.
Nabor was easy to talk to, and several times during my stays in Punta Gorda I would stop by his home to chat with him. There are a couple of impressions I remember most vividly:
“Nabor,” he once told me, was not his real name. “Nabor” was the nickname of Mr. Paul Santino, though everyone in Belize knows him simply as “Nabor.” In explanation, he recalled his youthful days as a rough and tumble character, an amateur boxer in fact, living across the border in Livingston, Guatemala. It seemed there was a fellow about town at the time who always wanted to mix it up with Nabor but circumstances never allowed for it. He was a considerably larger man than Nabor and so Nabor was not particularly willing to engage him, wisely preferring to avoid his antagonist altogether. When the inevitable finally did occur and they came to blows, Nabor got the best of him. “ … and I knocked him down, just like that!” There was a gleam in his old eyes as he recalled his triumph.
When later asked about the fight, the loser responded helplessly “he nabored me! he nabored me!” And thus was born the moniker. To be honest, I have no idea exactly what this term “nabor” means in this context, nor am I entirely sure if I understood the story correctly – but it was certainly a pleasure to hear him tell it.
He also told me something about his concert tours in North America and Europe. Rome, he said, was his favorite city of all, home to the most beautiful women and the friendliest people. He confessed he didn’t care much for Washington, D.C. – too big to walk around, he claimed, one needed a car to get anywhere. A common problem in United States cities, I sympathized. “But I tell you, it was something to play in front of thousands of people – that makes you think!” Asked how he overcame the nervousness he replied “well, I just thought about the only thing that mattered, my guitar here, and I know how to play my guitar, so I just went out and played my first song like I always do.”
And did the people like it?
“Oh yes, they clapped and clapped and everything went alright from there.”
Parranda is a form of Garifuna song that has received much press back in the 2000s (and maybe still does, I am not certain). The word actually describes two distinct but related types of music. The first is the drum rhythm and accompanying dance and song, which, alongside punta, is perhaps the favorite form of Garifuna drummers. The second is a guitar-based ballad song, accompanied usually but not always by a drummer playing the typical parranda drum pattern, albeit in a less spectacular fashion then in the drum music. It is this second type of parranda which the world music press has hailed of late as a triumph of Africanicity in Central America. While I would never decry the African heritage of the Garifuna – an idea from which they gain great strength and pride – I feel in this case the claim has been made at the expense of the Latin influence. To my ears, the influence of Spanish balladry seems at least as prevalent, if not more so, than the African.
Nabor’s songs, all of his own composition, stung with yearning and loneliness, melancholic reveries on subjects thick with romance: imploring for the love of an ungiving woman, studying the waterfront of an unknown town as your boat enters port, finding oneself walking home as the sun rises after a night of adventures. The four musicians featured in the following recordings played in a dugú temple, a cool, shadowy place with wooden walls and packed earth floor lit only by an open door and a window. Bright red striped towels fluttered in the sun on a clothesline outside.
Every song began on a bouncy minor-key arpeggio of suspect intonation, due in part to the weathering of the fingerboard as well as a slight pulling of the strings by the player. The songs then progressed through verse and chorus, the latter of which evolved into a montuno section, replete with increased primero fills and rolls, and aggressive guitar strumming. Asked to comment on this feature, Nabor said simply, “Carib music is a little rough you know.”*
His last song was my favorite, a tune he titled simply “Ayodao.” Gone was the recognizable snapping primero drum pattern, replaced by a slow, gentle beat in six. “Not a parranda,” said Nabor, “but a bolero.” Such a sad melody, played with the barest hint of drums to carry it along. “Ayodao” was a heartbreakingly beautiful song, and easily my favorite of the day. Like every other song Nabor played, he finished with a simple one-string slide of the fingerboard.
After the session, I let the musicians listen to the playback. Nabor listened longer than the others and when he listened he held the headphones tightly to his ears and closed his eyes. When he was finished he carefully lay the headphones on the table and turned to me and smiled, “oh, that is pretty music.”
Here are two tracks from this recording session.
The musicians were Paul ‘Nabor’ Santino (guitar, lead vocal), Jihon Petillo (primero, vocal), Ismael Moreira (shaker, vocal), and Cristina Franzua (clave, vocal).
(Both recorded December 23, 2002)
*Perhaps it was just a testament to Nabor’s age, but his usage of the word “Carib” is interesting. The word is a remnant of the Caribbean’s colonial past and has fallen out of favor. Considered derogatory by some, it is uncommon to hear nowadays.