In March, Steve Molyneux was sitting with a handheld cassette recorder in the small village of Hopkins, Belize, recording a group of drummers, when he was told that he should have asked permission first. "Don't mess with us," he was later warned. "We'll track you down."
The musicians were from the Lebeha Drumming Center, a local institution that teaches youth in the area how to play drums that are customary to the Garifuna — a culture descended from African and native groups found around the Caribbean. In 2006, an album of performances from the center called Traditional Garifuna Music was nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Music category. Drummer Clayton Williams was skeptical of Molyneux because a woman some time ago had taken a photo of the group, using it for a popular postcard without their permission.
"It's kind of weird to think about now, because we became friends very quickly after that," says Molyneux.
That's how the LeBeha Men cassette Garifuna Field Recordings came about. Released via No Kings, the label Molyneux co-founded as a member of the Murfreesboro-based band Poet Named Revolver, the new tape serves as something of a follow-up to Molyneux's Cambodian Field Recordings. The previous tape — a sound collage that was well received in the niche circles that gravitate toward that sort of curiosity — was recorded while Molyneux lived in Southeast Asia. Foxy Digitalis, a website that focuses on more experimental and esoteric music, called it "classic ambient music at its very purest."
Molyneux also interspersed field recordings that he made in Thailand for his release The Arbitrary State, which was originally released as a 3-inch CD-R on Murfreesboro's Kimberly Dawn imprint (it's being re-released by Fadeaway Tapes with additional field recordings). But in those recordings, Molyneux chopped and edited to provide a sense of place. Atmosphere played as big a part as performance. For Garifuna Field Recordings, the musicians are very much front-and-center.
Molyneux first learned about the Garifuna while traveling in Honduras in 2008. When he journeyed back to Central America earlier this year, his original plan was to capture the same sense of place and regional identity that he did in Cambodia.
"I'd never been to Belize but had wanted to see the northern part of Central America and was curious to explore other Garifuna villages," Molyneux tells the Scene via email. "I had read that Hopkins was a bastion of sorts for Garifuna drumming, so I planned to follow my ears around there."
His ears led him to the LeBeha Men. The end result — while more crudely recorded — isn't all that dissimilar from the aforementioned Grammy-nominated album.
"I feel like the LeBeha drummers are a really strong representation of traditional Garifuna music," explains Molyneux, "and so a more straightforward, intimate recording, with their understanding that it would be a field recording document of the culture, seemed like the best approach in this case."
That means Molyneux is playing more of an Alan Lomax role here than a collage-artist one. And by virtue of the equipment Molyneux was using, the LeBeha Men's music sounds ancient — like we're hearing a beaten and battered document of something that happened decades ago, not months ago. Also — much like the sound that characterized Cambodian Field Recordings — the distance can be heard between Molyneux's microphone and the source. The music itself is frenetic: Impossibly busy hand drums churn through rhythms that borrow here and there from Latin American influences, but are rooted in a continent thousands of miles away.
Molyneux is back in Nashville now. He's part of the improv music troupe Horsehair Everywhere, which has a new tape coming out called When Eyes Walk. He's working on a solo album — which will include field recordings from Mexico and Nicaragua by Marissa Gorey, who Molyneux collaborates with in the group Gigantic Blonde Boy — and he's helping score a film called 12th and Gershwin with jazz trumpeter Frederick Weathersby.
As for the LeBeha drummers, they won the Central American Battle of the Drums in December and are set to tour Canada in September.