I’m writing this column today for different reasons, but the main one is to pay respect to the life and musical work of the composer/singer/performer “Mister Program” (christened “Gilbert Alamilla”), who was murdered last week in an act which sounds like what the local journalists often describe as “senseless violence.”
I never met Mister Program, who was half my age when he was killed, but I thought some of his music was fantastic, and I saw him as a serious and precious talent.
By the way, I want to mention, quickly, that we Belizeans are very happy to see Gerald “Lord” Rhaburn composing and performing music still. Gerald is in his eighties and he is simply legendary. Lord Rhaburn will be remembered long after these crooked PUDP politicians are forgotten.
There is no artistic community as such in Belize City, our nation’s population center, and one of the reasons for this, I suppose, is our roots poverty.
Before COVID-19, there had always been an identifiable and influential artistic community in New York City, which is the financial center of the American superpower. New York City may have been the richest city in the world before the virus, thus there had always been surplus wealth available to support all the musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors, actors, writers, and other artists who entertain Wall Street and all the Big Apple rich people.
Dangriga has been described for some decades now as Belize’s “culture capital,” and Dangriga’s is a remarkable story. The town is quite poor where money is concerned, but it is so incredibly rich where music, dance, painting, and other cultural expressions are concerned.
Life is often a mysterious and confusing process. Artists are people who are a minority in all cultures and civilizations, and who are misunderstood and often considered strange or weird, especially in poor communities and societies where citizens have to be completely focused on earning a daily living in order to keep themselves and their children housed and nourished.
In Western societies like ours, we refer to a “nine-to-five” culture, wherein citizens work the five weekdays from the hours of eight or nine in the mornings until five or six in the evenings, take a rest on Saturdays and worship religiously on Sundays. This is sometimes referred to as the “bourgeois” lifestyle. It is not a lifestyle which encourages creativity.
That is why I have given much praise to Dr. Colville Young, who produced major artistic works in music and writing while teaching faithfully at the high school and university levels in Belize. Personally, I don’t know how he did it.
When I came home from an American university at the end of June in 1968, I was 21 and I had been radicalized by the black power movement and Vietnam War protests in the United States. I had no intention of taking a regular job. I was serious about my writing, the same way Mr. Program was serious about his music.
An artist who places his art above all other considerations is usually described as “bohemian,” as opposed to “bourgeois.” How strange life can be! There are some artists who died as paupers centuries ago whose paintings sell for hundreds of millions of dollars today.
Yes, I had been radicalized in America, but you should know that the United States and the whole world had been radicalized in 1968, primarily by the Vietnam War, I guess. But, I had not become as bohemian as perhaps I thought I was, because when my lover became pregnant my remaining bourgeois consciousness kicked in, and I decided I had to get a job.
There was a vacancy at the Belize Teachers College for some kind of lecturer at the time. The position called for a Master’s degree, whereas I only had a Bachelor’s, but I applied anyway. There was really nothing else bubbling. In retrospect, I’m glad I did, because I got an opportunity to meet the educational power structure of Belize, face to face. There were about fifteen or seventeen people in the room where I was interviewed. I think Darrell Diaz from the Education Department was there, probably Miss Kingston and Miss Williams from the Teachers College staff. Fr. Leo Weber was there, representing St. John’s College, and Deacon (not yet Bishop) Eldon A. Sylvestre represented the Anglican school system. There were nuns representing St. Catherine Academy and nuns who represented Pallotti High School. That is what I believe I remember. This was a long time ago. (I believe Madame Gwendolyn Lizarraga was the Minister of Education, but I do not recall seeing her in the room. As I said, it’s a long time ago.)
Those were the days (1968) when we were still a self-governing British colony. I don’t know how things work under political independence in Belize education, but the point I want to make is that in 1968 there was an identifiable group of people, representing the Christian churches mainly, who decided what Belizean children should read from what they should not read. I was underqualified for the job for which I had applied, and I was a radical, so there was no way I would get such a job at the Teachers College (which was amalgamated into the University of Belize in 2000).
I guess some of the big political boys got together after that episode and I was offered a job teaching English at the Belize Technical College, it being the case that the incumbent English teacher at Technical, Joey Belisle, was going abroad to study.
I did enter the September National Day poetry competition in 1968, and I did not place (neither first, second, nor third.) I think at that point I suspected life in Belize was not going to be any kind of bed of roses for me with this writing business.
I have to make a long story short. After losing my job at the government-controlled Technical in May/June of 1969, I did not work in “the system” for two years until Wesley College hired me for the 1971/72 school year. But by the end of that school year, I was sure high school teaching was not my calling. I returned to the streets and began serious writing. I would say that I fell flat on my face. The new United Democratic Party (UDP) and I ran afoul of each other. I would also say that the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) “rescued” me between 1975 and 1977, which is more or less how I ended up, by 1981, publishing Belize’s leading newspaper.
Neither myself nor my younger brother, Colin, who has produced a greater volume of creative writing than I, has ever been included on the reading lists of any of the schools in our native country. Were it not for you, the purchasers of our newspaper, I would probably be dead by now.
There was a famous Russian writer by the name of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970) who was beaten, tortured and imprisoned in the “Gulag Archipelago” during the Stalinist communist era. Solzhenitsyn once said, no doubt referring to himself, “A great writer is like a second government.”
Writers create problems for politicians and rulers, because writers want to comment openly about policies, programs, and the like for which rulers, elected or unelected, are responsible. Sometimes musicians come in for the same brutalities writers suffer in totalitarian societies. This is the way of the world.
The reality of the artistic world is that artists can’t help themselves. They are chasing a truth only they understand. It is bankers who rule the world, that is for sure, but this thing called “genes” is a matter by itself. There was a classic case of the uncontrollable nature of genes in The Godfather Part III.
Mafia dons like Michael Corleone are as dedicated to the accumulation of money, by any means necessary (in the case of the dons) as bankers are. But in the Ford Coppola movie, Michael Corleone’s only son decides he wants to become an opera singer. Well, his father has enough money to support him, but what about all the other would-be singers and performers who do not have a Mafia don father to bail them out if and when?
There is now talk that Mister Program was killed because of a $70 debt. A special Belizean talent lost his life in his creative prime. Rest in peace, young brother.