BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Sept. 14, 2023
In mid-August the National Institute of Culture and History’s Institute of the Creative Arts had received 24 entries to the annual Belize National Song Competition, and after an intense examination and debate, had winnowed these to 8 songs.
They are: “B E L I Z E” by Marlyn Vansen; “Independence” by Cecil Jenkins aka Cocono Bwai; “Faces of Belize” by Sam Harris; “Belize Wonders Unknown” by Kernelle Parks aka Nello Player; “Yes I Love Belize” by Denzel Charley; “Belizean Foreva” by Tyrone Usher aka TYTY; “Code 501” by Echo Middleton; and “We Belize” by Sharon Martinez aka Bad Gyal Sharon.
The songs have been playing for the past two weeks on Belizean radio stations and a concert styled contest will be held on Friday night, September 15, at the Bliss Institute for the Creative Arts where the winner of the 2023 Belize National Song Competition will be chosen by a panel of three judges after viewing performances from all contestants.
Giselle E. O’Brien is a singer, composer and music teacher currently residing in Belize. She is joined by Carlos Omolewa Miguel Perrote, Sr., originally from Guantánamo, Cuba, and trained at the National School of Arts, Havana, Cuba. He’s a music teacher at Grace Primary School, the music director at St. John’s Junior College, and the band director of Holy Redeemer Marching Band. He has been performing in Belize for over 20 years.
Gina Scott is a classically trained and culturally fluent professional with over thirty years of experience in creative industries. Her work includes being a researcher of Belizean folk and traditional forms, educator and record producer of pioneers like Leela Vernon and Andy Palacio.
The entries not shortlisted were either plagued by repetitive lyrics, unoriginal music and arrangements, and/or low production quality among other defects. The judges are looking at and for originality, compositions that are unique and demonstrate a high level of creativity.
The melodies should be engaging and memorable, the organizers declare, and the lyrics should be meaningful, relatable and reflect Belizean culture and identity with a compelling theme or topic.
No vulgarity, profanity or violent language is allowed, and arrangements should be well structured and appropriate to the genre used.
They added that the judges will look for the effective use and integration of harmonies to enhance the overall musicality of the song, adding depth, richness and musical cohesion.
The contest will be broadcast and live streamed, and the hope is that the vocal performances will be technically proficient with expressive emotional deliveries. Contestants can use back-up singers and dancers as well.
ICA’s Director Kim Vasquez makes it clear that they want a song with the legacy of a lasting impact. It is not surprising that this year’s cadre of contestants are for the most part veteran performers, several of whom have participated before and 2 of whom have won the contest several times.
The contest was first staged in 1999 and was won by the Los Angeles Belizean band Dell and the Sensations with “Raise yu Belizean Flag” and has persisted despite a few hiccups including being wiped out by the pandemic, and not being staged since 2019.
Cecil “Cocono Bwai” Jenkins, Jr. has won the contest 4 times (2015/16 and 2018/19) and Kernelle “Nello Player” Parks won 3 consecutive contests (2012/13/14) before taking a break. The duo Denise Castillo and Alexander Evans captured the prize in 2017.
Sharon Martinez has won the Carnival song competition which was attached to the then Belize Patriotic Song Competition, but after a few years the contest has been completely revamped and updated. Jenkins also won the Junior category in 2014.
The prize money of $20,000 goes to the winner and there will only be one winner.
The performers will be backed by bands, 4 by Centa Stage Band, which has been backing contestants in this contest for almost 10 years, Techno Band from Corozal, TLC Band from Orange Walk, Sam Harris’ Band, and a group Nello Player has put together for the contest.
The contest is being revived with the organizers (NICH/ICA, the National Celebrations Commission and the Belize Tourism Board) asking for entries that reflect Belizean culture, identity values, traditions and experiences.
Applicants had to be 18 years of age, and the songs must not have been released prior to entry and must be original compositions in all aspects of production, including lyrics.
Artists do retain the creative rights for their entire song and production, but will have “grant signed” permission for NICH and BTB to have non-commercial use of the song for the period of 1 year from August 16, 2023, to August 15, 2024.
The chosen contestants will each receive a performance honorarium of $1,500.00 and will get to perform a warmup song before they perform their competition entry song.
The tunes are all distinct melodies in several genres such as Brukdong, Soca and Salsa. Perhaps the cleverest is Nello Player’s entry which features snippets of Belizeans speaking in 7 languages – German (Mennonite), Hindi (Indian), Igbo (Nigerian), Spanish, Garifuna, Mandarin (Chinese), Ketchi (Maya), ethnicities that are all very much a part of Belize’s national demographics.
Some quote this year’s celebration’s theme “”Hope Ignited, Hands United, Vision Renewed: Belize@42!” while the others speak of their love for Belize, their beautiful country they love to call home.