BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 14, 2015–The United Black Association for Development (UBAD) Education Foundation has been holding “open-mic” poetry reading sessions at Spooner’s Café, on North Front Street for several months, to raise funds for the Dr. Leroy Taegar Institute of Learning, Literacy and Numeracy Program, located at the Library of African and Indian Studies on the Kremandala compound. Last Thursday night, May 14, poets and those who support the UBAD Educational Foundation were treated to the special sounds of one of Belize’s most accomplished and iconic musicians.
Almost none of the young poets who took to the microphone were aware of who the man on the keyboard was, nor of his significance to the early Belizean beat.
Clinton “Junie” Crawford, whose music was synonymous with the name “the great Lord Rhaburn”, who has entertained generations of Belizean music lovers, must have sounded different to the young people in the audience at Spooner’s, but when Sydney “Stretcher” Lightburn took the mic and belted out a jazz song, with Crawford at the keyboard, the appreciative crowd wanted more, so Crawford fed their hunger for more by playing a few more tunes.
Junie Crawford, as he is more popularly known, has been on the Belizean music scene for decades, after he began his musical career playing the keyboard with the then Mighty Lord Rhaburn and his Combo in the early 1970s.
Crawford said that he ended up at Spooner’s due to an invitation from Mark Phillips, “one of the great guitar players here in Belize.”
“He said he does this gig at Spooner’s and if I would like to come and partake with him,” Crawford told Amandala.
“We played some of the numbers that the band usually plays, which is some Jazz standards. Actually Mike (Michael Usher) was there too, so we played some steel drum tunes, ‘Brown Skin Gyal’, ‘Sly Mongoose’,” he said.
Junie Crawford first began playing in the Harmonettes band at a very young age.
“You know word get around in Belize. Someone would say, ‘boy a gone round that such and such a place and I saw wan lee boy di play, and he’s good, mek we try fu get am’,” Crawford reflected.
Crawford explained that at the same time that Lord Rhaburn’s keyboard player was going to the U.S., he, Crawford, was asked to take his place. “That’s how I started playing with Rhaburn,” he explained.
During his early years with The Lord Rhaburn Combo, Crawford put Belize on the musical map of the region with a mixture of big hits which included reggae and calypso songs from two albums that were cut in Guatemala City. He was about sixteen-years-old, he said.
When he was just a child, music came to him in an almost natural way. “One of my siblings brought a toy piano for me for Christmas. I was tinkering around with it, and trying to make sounds. And that’s when I knew there was some kind of music going on in my head,” he reflected.
Crawford attended St. John’s Primary School and St. Michael’s High School, and he noted that even in school, “the music was always present.” “Lynn Young and I were classmates, and you know, the Young’s had a piano; sometimes they literally had to drive me away, because I always wanted to jump on that piano,” Crawford recalled. (Lynn Young comes from a great music family. He is the son of Governor General Sir Colville Young.)
Crawford would eventually leave Belize to follow his dream of playing music on the international scene.
“I left Belize to pursue music, because I wanted to get better. At the time I felt like I had played every venue in Belize. I just reached that point where it seems like I had seen it all, done it all, and it was time for me to move on,” he said.
“We played calypso, pop, funk, ballads, reggae, I mean, anything that was on the radio, our band played it. Sadly that variety is not there anymore”, Crawford remarked. “We played up to waltz, sometimes they would call us to play at the Police Canteen, and we would play whole sets of waltz,” he said.
“I really love the way the country has evolved to promoting the cultural, our own Belizean music. That’s pretty good,” Crawford further commented.
Upon leaving Belize around 1984, Crawford landed in Los Angeles, California. “I tried to quickly assimilate in the music community, you know find out who was playing where and getting gigs from whoever would call. But at that time I was also a member of the Bamiki Bandula Band. They had just moved to Los Angeles,” he said.
He noted that his experience with Bamiki Bandula was great, and that Belize really has some talented musicians.
“When I joined Bamiki Bandula, we had the likes of Carl McGregor, and his brother Dilly and Michael Hyde on keyboards. Michael Hyde is doing great. He is the keyboard player for Ziggy Marley; they just won a Grammy Award recently. He is doing some fantastic things,” he said.
Crawford, who started composing music before he left Belize, also took time out to study his craft formally. “When I went to the States, I studied at Los Angeles Community College. Then I went to the conservatory, where I studied with one teacher. Then I did private study with a great jazz pianist name John Novello. Novello is the author of many books and videos on jazz. Of course, one can always talk about the academic aspect of this, but the true study is in the fields, where you try to get introduced to more musicians, more gigs and more different styles.,” he said.
After a lifetime of playing different genres of music, Crawford, at 54, said he has settled into playing jazz, “because jazz is like classical. Jazz is like the ultimate. When a musician really wants to stretch out from ordinary, everyday reggae, pop, and all that other stuff, they mess with jazz.”
“It’s a very challenging genre of music, you need to have the constant appetite for more”, Crawford said.
Herbie Hancock had the most influence on him.
“Only because I knew about him first, from in Belize. Nelson Fuller and I used to listen to all the Herbie Hancock music. We used to stay up late at nights listening to Hancock, and then from there we moved on to other people like Oscar Peterson, Monte Alexander and others. I love jazz piano, but I love big band music,” Crawford disclosed, adding “of course there was Duke Ellington, Count Basi.”
“In the contemporary realm, Whynton Marsalis is the cat right now”, Crawford said, “because he is a really good jazz educator, and he is spreading jazz all over the world”.
Five years ago, Crawford packed up and left the United States to take up residence in Nassau, Bahamas, where he said he is playing more jazz.
He was invited to give Bahamas a try by his Bahamian friend Adrian DeAgular, whom he described as one of the best bassists in the Bahamas. “He is the only one that plays the upright bass,” Crawford added.
DeAgular and Crawford met in the U.S. and Crawford said that when he moved back home, “He used to invite me all the time to come down to the Bahamas and play some music. There’s money to be made here. So I decided to take him up on it. The rest is history.”
“Their music is rake and scrape and Jankuno, but they play all kinds of music there,” Crawford said.
Asked how he would view the present Belize music scene in comparison with the old days when there was definitely more competition on the music scene, Crawford said, “It’s not an easy answer for that.”
“The old school when you had Lord Rhaburn, The Professionals, Bamiki Bandula and all these other bands, it was a kind of competitive time when the musicians tried to excel, by studying their crafts more. We tried to challenge ourselves. You could go back and play any record for that period and you could hear all these beautiful songs that these guys recorded from across the board. I don’t think that you get that now. There might be a certain level of frustration by the musicians,” he said.
Crawford said he could make that claim, because ever since moving to the U.S. and coming back to Belize quite often, he “could see the decline of bands.”
“My best memory of playing music was playing at Birds Isle, because of the venue. You had to cross over the bridge and it is like you’re on a beach. Second to that was travelling in the districts. It’s always good to be back in Belize and to hear that kids are playing music. I would like to encourage that by telling them to study hard and apply themselves. There is no other way,” he said.