Garifuna carry on deep culture work

Interview with Andy Palacio from 2007

Three Garifuna girls pose for the camera as an unseen adult yells at them to get back inside. As his demands grow louder their smiles get wider. Black Carib skin offsets pearly white teeth and precocious manners.

They've done this before these Garifuna girls: ignoring an elder to get a closer look at strangers from elsewhere. The isolated Garifuna, cut off from the rest of the world on the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, have been able to maintain their traditional culture well into the 21st century. Despite the constant bombardment of TV and the Internet chipping away at their unique identity they continue to find common ground as a community. And thanks to cultural ambassadors, such as the late Andy Palacio, the Garifuna appear to be in good hands for the future.

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The following story on Andy Palacio and the Garifuna was first published in the North Shore News in December 2007. A month after the article was published he died unexpectedly of a massive stroke and heart attack at the age of 48.

Palacio was in Seville, Spain in October 2007 to receive the WOMEX World Music Award for his ongoing efforts to preserve and revitalize the Garifuna culture. His new album, Watina, unites the musical legacies of African and Caribbean ancestors and in doing so defines what is special about the Garifuna.

Born in 1960 in the Belizean coastal village of Barranco, Palacio is not only a musician but a government official as he is president of the National Institute of Culture and History, a department in Belizes Ministry of Education.

"Growing up, Barranco was a fairly self-sufficient community," says Palacio recalling his youthful days. "There were lots of children there. Just the fact that I grew up along with a lot of Garifuna children my age, to me, that was remarkable. I didnt really have to learn to be Garifuna, I was simply Garifuna. On the playgrounds, on the streets, it was all Garifuna being spoken except when it came to the classroom where English was the language of instruction.

In colonial Belize the education system reflected the historical and political reality of the times. Although the Garifuna culture was created out of the slave system they themselves have never been slaves. They've spent centuries carving out their own identity no matter what the cost. In Barranco the demographics were homogeneously Garifuna with an economy based on subsistence farming and fishing. During the 1960s the modern world, especially pop culture via radio, was just beginning to intrude on the Garifuna.

"There was always a lot of R&B, soul, funk, pop, West Indian calypso, reggae and Latin," says Palacio. "As teenagers we had to pick up a hobby and there were a few of us who were into music. In the most rudimentary forms of course we didnt have the kinds of instruments that bands were using to record and perform. But we tried to learn the songs and interpret using whatever was at our disposal."

Palacio started learning basic music theory in high school from his homeroom teacher Jenny Lovell. He started out as a singer, he says, because he had friends who were much better players. "We had a piano at one of my cousins houses, another one of them owned a guitar. I didn't own anything. I carved a niche for myself singing and eventually learned to accompany myself with the guitar with the help of my peers. Some were able to acquire guitar instruction books and we learned chords. There was a competition among us to see who could outdo the other coming up with new skills".

While attending Belize Teachers College Palacio saw the effects of outside forces on Garifuna culture firsthand. "I was not a musician yet. I had gone as one of a group of volunteers to serve in Nicaraguas national literacy campaign that was launched by the Sandanista government shortly after they took office. I saw a Garifuna community that was on the brink of almost complete disconnection from Garifuna culture.

The Belizean community has assimilated a lot easier than other Garifuna communities. I think it has to do with the level of access to education and economic opportunity that Belize offers and that has in many ways had positive effects. Our communities have suffered because of the trend toward urbanization and the challenges that that brings along. Once we are no longer functioning within our own communities our children are forced to contend with very powerful forces of globalization."

After moving to the town of Punta Gorda, Palacio began singing and playing guitar in local bands. He listened to Punta Rock bands such as Pen Cayetano and the Turtle Shell Band and began incorporating traditional Garifuna lyrics and drumming with electric guitars and bass. For the next decade he continued to mix traditional and modern styles in his music.

My focus was to take Garifuna music, Garifuna culture to the level of pop, says Palacio. To make it as pop as possible. I would do reggae but it would be in Garifuna. I would sing ballads and R&B in the Garifuna language with synthesizers and drum machines. I would use all the available technology to make Garifuna music through Punta Rock sound like anything that was coming out of the Francophone Caribbean or anything coming out of Trinidad or Guyana or Barbados."

After meeting producer Ivan Duran in 1995 his approach began to change. Duran, owner of Stonetree Records and co-recipient of the WOMEX award, wanted Palacio to dispense with the pop packaging and get back to his traditional roots. Ivan and I started discussing making a 180-degree turn to rediscover and expose some of the lesser-known forms of Garifuna music, blending in some international influences but maintaining the integrity of the core of the music which is based on traditional drumming and language.

Duran, born in Belize to Catalonian parents, had been dabbling in Garifuna roots music even before he met up with Palacio. In 1999 Stonetree released a CD called Paranda with the Garifuna All-Star Band. Out of those early efforts evolved the massively talented Garifuna Collective heard on Watina. The group is a multi-generational all-star band of the best Garifuna musicians. They came from all corners of their diminishing Caribbean world to play together.

Seventy-eight-year-old Paranda icon Paul Nabor and rising star Aurelio Martinez form the backbone of the latest release. The group recorded the majority of Watina over a four-month period in the south Belizean coastal town of Hopkins. They spent their recording time in an improvised studio in a thatched-roof cabin on the beach. Nice work if you can get it.

"Hopkins was the perfect setting for such a project," enthuses Palacio. "We were literally immersed in Garifuna culture. Hopkins can be credited as perhaps the Garifuna community in Belize with the highest level of retention of Garifuna culture where the Garifuna language is still the first language spoken by many young children.

"Stonetree parachuted into Hopkins with equipment. We moved around freely on this resort which is owned by a womens cooperative right there on the beach. They cooked Garifuna meals for us. Wed wake up in the morning and walk straight out into the sea for a swim. It was that kind of environment."

Garifuna music is based on traditional drums (called primero and segunda) and specific rhythms such as the sacred dugu, punta and gunjei as well as the Latin paranda. Contemporary elements have been added to give the music relevance in a modern context but roots is what the Garifuna Collective is all about. The title track, Watina (I Called Out) opens the album with a tale of being stranded on a country road while the other 11 tracks deal with all aspects of daily life Beiba (Go Away), written by veteran Lugua Centeno, concerns the marital aftermath of too much partying while Paul Nabors Yagane (My Canoe) has the singer calling out for his canoe as it drifts away.

Traditional Garifuna culture is inextricably tied to the Caribbean Sea and many of the songs make reference to that connection. The lyrics in Watina manifest a social responsibility similar to what Youssou N'Dour does with his Senegalese mbalax tunes. The music tries to teach and entertain at the same time. Lidan Aban (Together), a reggae/paranda influenced song Palacio wrote with Aurelio Martinez calls for unity and progress among Garifuna everywhere. The total population of the Garifuna diaspora is approximately 250,000 with immigrant communities established in L.A., New York, Chicago and Miami.

The Garifuna Collective is really a representation of the Garifuna musical community with all its diversity, says Palacio. Each member of the collective brings his or her own background and experience to accomplish the sound that W?tina delivers. I think this demonstrates we are indeed one people across borders. The background of Garifuna from Guatemala and Garifuna from Honduras blend quite easily and naturally with us from Belize.

Producer Duran had a big hand in the selection of the tracks on the album. The band recorded more material than what made it onto the disc suggesting there are more volumes to come. Since the release of Watina earlier this year the Garifuna Collective have been touring the world.

"It's been quite hectic," says Palacio. "Playing for new audiences has been very rewarding. The level of recognition that we have garnered from people who have seen us live has been remarkable. I guess the relationship with the media to get the message out has really worked out for us because for us this goes far beyond entertainment this is deep culture work.

"There seems to be a consensus wherever we've been that the music strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of our audiences. Even if I did not take the extra effort to introduce songs during the concerts there always seems to be a very high level of understanding which goes beyond simple appreciation of what we're doing."

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