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Music – Garifuna, the sound of memory

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Making music as a way to remember. This is part of the culture of the Garifuna people, a minority of African descent living in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Their ancestors left what later was to become Nigeria around three centuries ago aboard a slave ship which ran aground on the island of St. Vincent. In about a century, a new community had grown out of intermarriage between the African Igbos and the native Arawaks. In 1796 they were expelled from the island and finally settled in the Central American region. In 1823, a small group arrived in British Honduras (Belize). As both members of an ethnic minority and slave descendants, the Garifuna (also called, more correctly, the Garinagu) have been politically and culturally marginalized. This also affected their musical tradition and their best-known genre, paranda. Paranda is at the roots of the Garifuna sound, based on acoustic guitars (mainly the flamenco, borrowed from Spanish music), ballad rhythms, and local percussions.

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Despite being labelled even by most locals as mere folklore, Garifuna music survived in a few communities. It then experienced a resurgence thanks to the rediscovery of artists such as the guitarist Paul Nabor and the inventor of the so-called punta rock, Pen Cayetano of the Turtle Shell Band. Among the new Garifuna flag-bearers a very special mention must go to the late Andy Palacio from Belize. With Wátina he drew international attention to his music, and, most of all, to his people. Unfortunately, he died of a sudden illness in 2008, just a year after Wátina’s release. Among his unachieved projects was the attempt to reconnect his work to its African roots.

The Honduran Aurelio Martinez, best known on the musical scene by his first name, fulfilled Palacio’s desire. He had contributed to Wátina and joined forces with another of Palacio’s long-time friends and collaborators, the musical producer and Garifuna ‘cultural activist’ Ivan Duran. The result of their efforts was Laru Beya, an album which Aurelio calls “a homecoming” because “it will be the first Garifuna record to reconnect with Africa itself.”

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The African influences in Laru Beya include Angolan beats and – most of all – sounds of Senegal. This is mainly because of the encounter between Aurelio and the world-famous Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour who features in two of the album’s twelve tracks. Other contributors from the West African country include the well-known Orchestra Baobab and a handful of Dakar rappers. At first sight, this focus on Senegal might appear a betrayal of the Garifuna roots, since their ancestors are from modern Nigeria. The Honduran author sees it differently, “When I feel I want to come to Africa – he says – I see Africa; I don’t only see Nigeria.”

Actually, interaction with a wide range of different traditions has always been a feature of Garifuna culture. It has been said that their music has “mysterious Afro-Caribbean roots, with West African rhythms, a Latin lilt, and flavours of reggae and calypso.” Aurelio gives his contribution – as Palacio did before him – to this approach in his own way. “I don’t play the world music of my country to put money in my pocket,” he states, pointing out that “we support culture when we play this music.”

Defending their tradition from oblivion has been a long-time commitment of the new Garifuna artists. “Andy Palacio’s fight – Aurelio recalls – has been to bring Garifuna culture to our own countries.” At home, “We simply have no outlet, no support – he adds – and yet Andy has helped make us famous all around the world.”
Aurelio began this cultural battle also addressing the Garifuna diaspora in North America, through the music workshops he used to give while visiting New York. To keep his people’s culture alive the Honduran singer hopes to create a school dedicated to Garifuna tradition. “When you have an education – he says – you will be free. Right now we don’t have an art school, there’s nowhere to teach young people how to play the different drums, no-one to teach them about our language, about our religion. There are no politicians campaigning for this.”

As a politician Aurelio served one term in the Honduran parliament between 2006 and 2010. He is very disillusioned by that experience. Weibayuwa, one of the tracks from his latest album, depicts MPs and other political figures as hungry sharks, exploiting small fish – poor uneducated people like many Garifuna – before abandoning them. In Tio Sam (Uncle Sam), on the other hand, he tackles the theme of emigration from Latin America to the USA, protesting against the wall built between Mexico and the States. Political commitment, or at least attention to social themes, is not new to the artists of this community: many of the Garifuna songs deal with the life of the disempowered who live at the mercy of the sea.

Even the title of Aurelio’s album is a reference to that: Laru Beya literally means “On the beach,” but this is not – as many Westerners might think – the sign of a lack of commitment. Quite the opposite, as the singer explains, “The entire Garifuna community is based around the beach; we are fishermen, we don’t have a life if we don’t have fish.” The beach is the centre of the social life of a people struggling – also with its music – not to be left alone and forgotten. (D.M.)

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