The Turtle Shell Band
Pen’s journey towards becoming a living cultural icon began with his rapt understudying of Isabel Flores, late master Garifuna drummer, choreographer, drum-builder, fisherman, farmer and rich repository of Garifuna traditions. Out of understudying Isabel Flores, and at the same time observing the state of Garifuna culture in Dangriga and Belize, there eventually emerged the twin tenets of his cultural philosophy that unleashed his matchless creativity. Firstly, he firmly believed that a progressive future had to be built on a cultural foundation imbedded in the traditions and values bequeathed by the ancestors. Secondly, he instinctively realized that making the traditions more relevant to the contemporary needs of the youth could make them better understand and appreciate their unique cultural heritage.
In practical terms, Pen’s philosophical motivation and self-taught musical skills led to the formation of the original Turtle Shell Band in 1980. From his 5 Moho Road Art Studio where they met to practice Garifuna music, there emerged a core sextet of young, sensational musicians: Pen, lead singer, song writer and guitarist; “Mohobob” Flores, lead turtle shells; Bernard “Higgins” Higinio, small turtle shells; “Myme” Martinez, Garifuna drums; “Faltas” Nolberto, cricket snare; Peter “Jeep” Lewis, maracas. All five supplied background vocals for Pen’s vast repertoire of skillfully crafted songs.
By the time the band’s first 1981 hit single, “Misunali Bu” was broadcast to the whole nation by Radio Belize, at that time the only national radio station, Pen’s innovations had already produced two permanent legacies. At the center of the band was a completely home-grown percussion instrument made from the carapaces or shells of fresh-water turtles. Those shells not only gave the band its name. More importantly, the instrument set the faster pace at which the traditional Punta was performed, thereby capturing in an infectious rhythm the vibrancy of youth while at the same time fixing in their consciousness the timeless importance of the musical tradition which gave birth to Punta Rock.
Infusion of elements of modern rock into traditional Punta, represented by Pen’s electric guitar, propelled the new rhythm and its provocative lyrics from Dangriga to a vast national and international audience. Over the three decades of evolution since Punta Rock’s genesis at 5 Moho Road, countless performers continuously entertain that growing audience. For this reason alone Dangriga earned its title of “Culture Capital”, and Pen earned a place among the cultural builders of Belize.
Francis Humphreys, 2016