Nobody Listens to…Garifuna Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve made a breakthrough-I’ve discovered that I can put footnotes on this blog.  Additionally, watch this space over the next few weeks for some very exciting and different things I’ll be bringing to the table.  Build the suspense…

I do have a proclivity towards music that’s soothing and seductive on this blog.  I admit that it’s relatively rare for me to profile music that’s abrasive or disturbing (don’t worry, I promise I’ll hit some of these in the coming weeks), and I am happy to say that this week’s installment is no different.  Garifuna music is comprised of several genres, virtually all of which beg the listener to close his or her eyes and sway to the grooves.  This is me writing about music with my eyes closed.

My knowledge of Garifuna music comes in two waves.  I first heard Garifuna songwriter Andy Palacio’s brilliant 2007 album Wátina when my good friend and brilliant Ethnomusicologist (now teaching at Rollins University in Orlando) Eric Bindler referred me for a listen.  I actually came across the music and culture of the Garifuna people again in my last semester as an undergraduate Ethnomusicology student while co-authoring an edited volume about Shamanistic practices.  I contributed a section on spirit possession ceremonies and music’s role therein among Garifuna people, and in the process uncovered even more beautiful songs.  I will borrow occasionally from that prior work throughout this piece.

The Garifuna[1] people today largely live in a number of communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The people who today identify as Garifuna share a language and culture, and trace their ancestry to West African slaves who escaped a shipwreck on the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent and intermarried with Carib and Arawak Amerindians living on the Island.  After struggles with French, British, and Spanish colonial powers, the Garifuna resettled along the coast of Central America in a number of largely homogenous villages, the largest being the city of Dangriga, Belize, the founding of which is celebrated nationally in Belize as “Garifuna Settlement Day”.  While the vast majority of Garifuna live in their original settlements in Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, sizable expatriate diaspora communities have formed in the American cities of New York and Los Angeles.   Most Garifuna are practicing Roman Catholics (there are small Rastafarian and Muslim minorities), but Garifuna additionally adhere to a traditional shamanic belief system dating back to their early years on St. Vincent.

Specifically the music of the Garifuna is typified by large rattles and drums that reflect the generations-old blend of African and Amerindian ancestry, and the beats of these percussion instruments traditionally play a role in communication between the physical and spiritual worlds. In the present day, Garifuna music is typically represented by a genre called punta and its blend with Latin American rock and pop.  Punta is an interesting genre in itself, and a number of artists have of late moved towards a sort of traditional version of the music, as preservation of a minority immersed in communities across the Caribbean coast of Latin America has become a necessary focus.  Hand in hand with UNESCO’s declaring Garifuna music important intangible heritage in 2001, production of “vintage” Garifuna music has given the world several fantastic albums of a music that is recognizably Latin while marking itself as unique.

These albums that have been produced almost feel like amalgamations of Latin American folk music.  Releases such as Andy Palacio’s Wátina, his friend Aurelio Martinez’ 2005 debut Garifuna Soul, and The Garifuna Women’s Project seem to independently parse a clave rhythm here and a soloistic vocal melody there to bridge Cuban son and Brazilian bossa nova through music that actually predates both.  The Garifuna language is beautiful, and the creole-ized pieces of Spanish, Carib, and African languages that have found a home in that lexicon flow wondrously over the slowly strummed guitars and thick grooves of the songs.  That almost no one speaks Garifuna only adds to the appeal; while Palacio in particular has penned fantastic lyrics about social problems and cultural preservation, a great many listeners will know only that the voices sound important and plaintive.  In a way, to hear such a rare language recorded and crystallized for eternity is a huge victory for a relatively small cultural group, and knowing this gives the vocals a bittersweet quality that the listener is probably reading into too much.  The joy and longing of a people increasingly connected only by history, music, and a somewhat commercialized spirituality translates seamlessly to make a style of music that is great for simply listening to.

It is truly a happy surprise to witness the emotional and musical range of the new “traditional” Garifuna recordings.  Palacio’s album takes the listener from the slowly persistent chugging of “Baba” and “Ayó Da” to the upbeat and highly syncopated “Lidan Aban“.  The title track is a paradox of midtempo call-and-response and staccato start-and-stop drumming.  Aurelio Martinez takes a darker turn with many of his songs, rushing from a near-whisper to a yell over moodily plucked acoustic guitar and Garifuna drumming.  To move in a completely different direction, the Umalali release titled The Garifuna Women’s Project takes older Garifuna women accustomed to performing a capella and provides the same spacious guitar-and-percussion accompaniment to great effect.  Time and time again the music pulls the listener to a scene on a Belizean beach, punctuating songs with an electric guitar solo or a chorus backed with smooth saxophones.

Andy Palacio worked the angle of cultural preservation of Garifuna culture and language through their music to great effect, but sadly did not live to see its benefits.  Less than a year after the release of Wátina, Palacio passed away from health complications after suffering a stroke and heart attack.  The singer was forty-seven years old.  Since Palacio’s death, the mantle of Garifuna cultural ambassador has largely been taken up by Aurelio Martinez, who has released an album of Garifuna-inspired music as recently as 2011, and of late has also gotten involved in the politics of his native Honduras.  The small size of the Garifuna diaspora makes tracking the musical movement as a whole difficult, but the songs are still present and still yearn for the close-knit communities Garifuna were known for by European colonial powers.  No one is listening to Garifuna music right now, but the unique path these people have taken through history has produced songs that are perfectly indicative of where they’ve come from.

[1] The Garifuna are sometimes referred to as “Garinagu”, as in a classical text by Oliver Greene.  In the years since Greene’s paper was published the Garifuna have shifted away from the Garinagu moniker as they feel it was a colonial designation forced upon them by the British.  As such, I will refer to the people as Garifuna in this work.