Sugga Belly – A Legend
William Walker, known to all as Sugar Belly, developed on his own the instrument he called the bamboo saxophone, and played it with facility, style, passion and joy. At the height of his popularity in the late 1950s Sugar Belly was one of the important figures in the Jamaican music scene, turning his homemade saxophone into a natural vehicle for a distinctively Caribbean musical style.
Sugar Belly was raised in Kingston. In music he was entirely self-taught. Just where he got the idea to create a bamboo saxophone is a bit of a mystery, since there is no traditional bamboo reed instrument in Jamaica, and no one that I have spoken to can recall seeing any other locally-made saxophone-like instrument in the island. Sugar Belly’s instrument seems to have been entirely his own in conception and design. In its construction the instrument might seem simple and crude, but you know the tree by its fruit: from it Sugar Belly managed to bring the most fluid, warm, agile, and unquestionably sax-like music you could wish for.
In the early days Sugar Belly played in talent exhibitions at Victoria Park in downtown Kingston, where years before Marcus Garvey had addressed the crowds. With increasing recognition he moved on to night clubs, such as the popular Glass Bucket located uptown at Halfway Tree. The leading popular music style in Jamaica at that time was mento. Sugar Belly’s band originally used a typical mento instrumentation of banjo, guitar and shakers, with the big bass kalimba known in Jamaica as a rumba box providing the bottom. Later he incorporated electric guitar and bass. Through the 1960s mento gradually faded in popularity. Sugar Belly brought popular songs from a broader range of local and international styles into his repertoire; still, as time passed, he and his band were heard from less and less. He later moved to the parish of St. Anne on the island’s north coast, and it was there that he died circa 1990 following a long illness.
Sugar Belly did make a fair number of bamboo saxophones over the years, keeping some to play himself and selling others. The main segment of his bamboo saxophone is a straight section of bamboo, an inch or so in diameter and something over a foot long. Into this at one end is inserted a mouthpiece of a few inches long, made from a smaller piece of bamboo sized so as to fit snugly into the main segment. Where a commercial sax has cork to ensure a leakless fit between the mouthpiece and the main tube, Sugar Belly put several rounds of masking tape to provide an adequate gasket.