By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Cristian Pinzón, Luis Cantillo, Javier Pinzón, Courtesy Billy Herron
The Amador Theater was packed to bursting on Wednesday, October 25, 2017. Not a single additional body could be squeezed into the theater and yet people kept coming because everyone knew it was going to be great night: the 50th anniversary of The Beachers, one of the biggest bands from the days of Panama’s “national combo” scene, was being celebrated with the release of a new record.
Dressed in black pants and a dashiki shirt, bandleader Lloyd Gallimore walked through the crowd, waving, smiling, and letting people take his picture. When the time came, he went on stage and told the audience: “In ten days I’ll be 72 years old, and here we are, still making noise!”
According to Mario García Hudson, The Beachers are “the most important ‘national combo’ band in the history of the country’s popular music,” given the time the band has remained active.
In the early 1960s, large orchestras were the stars of Panamanian stages. Later, smaller groups influenced by soul music from the southeastern United States, Latin jazz from New York, Cuban guaracha, and Panamanian folk music took over the market with repertoires that incorporated these styles as well as calypso and soca –two rhythms with a strong presence in Colon, Panama, and Bocas del Toro, provinces that had absorbed Antillean immigrants in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.
One of these groups was The Beachers, a band that came about almost by accident. Gallimore had no way of knowing it then, but the call he received one afternoon from Dennis Joshia, minister of the Episcopal Church of Changuinola, was about to change his life, and the lives of several friends who, like him, played congas, ukulele, and the Jew’s harp for fun.
Lloyd Gallimore was born in Bocas del Toro, in northwestern Panama, at a time when the United Fruit Company ran a banana empire that, since the late 19th century, had stretched into several countries in the Americas.
A descendant of blacks who came to Bocas from Martinique and Jamaica, Gallimore spent his childhood in Changuinola, in the heart of the dynamics imposed by the “mamita yunait.” Chiriqui Land, a subsidiary of United Fruit, not only harvested, packed, and exported the bananas planted by thousands of workers, but had also established a “mini-government” in Changuinola. Jobs and salaries were distributed depending on skin color and the different groups –Latinos, Blacks, Indians, and Americans– remained segregated, with separate residential neighborhoods for executives and workers, and different social clubs as well.
The “United” hired large orchestras and musicians to entertain its top executives. “That’s how Benny Moré and La Sonora Matancera came to play in Changuinola,” recalls Gallimore. A music lover since he was a child, Gallimore once snuck out to listen to one of those bands playing for the executives, but a neighbor saw him and told his father. “My dad gave me a real whipping. He told me I had no right to go there.”
Gallimore had to leave Bocas to obtain his baccalaureate and went on to the University of Panama, in the capital. But at the end of his first semester, his father sent for him because he needed help. There was a job waiting for him in Changuinola, at Chiriqui Land, and a position as a pianist in an orchestra.
Such was his situation when he got the call from Minister Joshia. The orchestra that had been playing at the church social for years had gone off to Costa Rica, where they’d landed a better contract, and the local event was left without musicians. Gallimore, who was new, “Chino” Williams, the singer, and the conguero decided to stay behind and help with the parish party. “Chino said he had a friend in Admiral who played the drums, and I called my friend, Sergeant Buggy, who played the guitar. The six of us got together and started rehearsing.”
The Saturday night of the event, at eight o’clock in the evening, with cheap instruments and an 800-pound piano carried in by several people, the group began to play. At the end of their first tune a funereal hush fell over the room. They nervously began to play their second piece. Then, to break the ice, the minister invited a lady to dance and the party was off and running!
“You know what time we finished? At 3:40 in the morning! And they paid us forty dollars!” he adds, laughing loudly. A member of the Baptist congregation, Gallimore believes that this first favor marked the band’s artistic career and he likes to say that their 50 years of success have been a succession of “Godsends.”
The Beach Boys –as they decided to call themselves– began playing on Isla Colon, the capital of the province. Then, one day they were hired for the Bocas del Toro Fair. It was here that Pete Romero, master of ceremonies and a television star at the time, showed an interest in them.
“We’d been playing for about two hours when he said: ‘Hey, I want to sing with you…’ and he was sold!” Romero now confirms the story: “It took less than 10 minutes to realize that this was a great musical discovery; they had a sound all their own.” Just one thing: Romero suggested they change their name, because there was already a band in the U.S. with the same name. That’s how The Beachers were born.
The encounter with Romero was providential. Thanks to his contacts, they were given an appointment with Santiago García, owner of Loyola Records. He gave them a lukewarm welcome at his studio. “He opened the door and said, play whatever you want,” recalls Gallimore. When they began to play, Garcia’s reaction was immediate: “Let’s start recording!”
As they decided which song to play, Feliciano “Larry” Earlington suggested a tune he’d put together recently: “El estiloso” (“Stylish Man”). The final result was “África caliente,” one of the band’s theme songs that continues to thrill with its bass congas, animals sounds, and keyboard riff. The track, dripping with Africana, was a hit. García Hudson recalls the more than 60,000 copies sold at a time when a 45-rpm record cost one dollar. The Beachers were on fire, with an amazing popularity shared with other combos such as Los Excelentes, Los Shelters, and Los Mozambiques.
On March 18, 1975, as the group traveled to the David Fair, misfortune reared its ugly head. While having a bite to eat in Santiago, a police officer and friend of Frank Sergeant –Sergeant Buggy– offered to give Buggy a lift to David on his motorcycle. Gallimore says the group urged Buggy to continue on with them, but the police officer insisted. Sergeant Buggy got on the motorcycle and the next time they saw him was at the bottom of a ravine. The band was hit hard. “We stopped playing for about two months and our slump lasted for almost a year,” recalls Gallimore.
The Beachers survived the tragedy, but they had to fight competition from other musical genres: first, from other “combos,” then from the wave of reggae in Spanish. Then came reggaeton, vallenato, and bachata. They never stopped playing live, but the group’s popularity has been limited in recent years to a very specialized underground fan base.
That is, until musician Billy Herron, a producer at Folk Lab Studio, became interested in them. “I’d heard of them, but hadn’t paid much attention to the music,” he confesses. Things changed when Herron used Gallimore’s keyboards on the Transístmico Project. Out of the long conversations between the two men came the idea for a new album.
Wednesday, October 25 was a great night: as the band began to play “El toro y la luna,” the audience sang at the top of their lungs: “Ese toro enamorado de la lunaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…” (“that bull in love with the moon…”). And with the opening chords of “El cojo y la muleta” (“The Cripple and the Crutch”) people started jumping. Joining The Beachers, who have been singing and playing for more than half a century, was another artist, impeccably dressed in a suit, hat, and two-tone black and white shoes: Camilo Azuquita, with his nostalgic boleros.
Queen of Jazz Idania Dowman also performed, and from her very first song she had the crowd roaring. The audience, much of it black like her, sang along to “Baptisan,” slapping the balcony railings, stomping on the floor, and waving their arms and nodding their heads. There must be something special about that song, because the entire theater shook.
Perhaps some of this is what keeps The Beachers current: their ability to spread joy, inspire nostalgia, and sing of their blackness, preserving the “swing” that belongs only to this great Panamanian combo from Bocas del Toro.