Sue Steward catches up with Belize’s Andy Palacio, spearheading the development of music from Central America’s Garifuna community. (This article originally appeared in the Songlines #47)
Belize is one of Latin America’s most incongruous countries: formerly British Honduras, its head of state remains the Queen of England and English its official language. But the tiny country (population around 300,000) is wedged between Spanishspeaking Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, and a stroll through Belize City offers a mix of Creole, English, Spanish, Mayan and Garifuna conversations. Belize is popular with eco-tourists, snorkellers and cruise ship passengers, but its growing presence in the world music arena points to a future destination for music tourists as well. The attraction will be the distinctive, strongly African dance music, and particularly its best-known singer-songwriter, Andy Palacio.
“I worked with small groups of Garifuna and was struck by their almost complete loss of identity. People were embarrassed that they couldn’t speak the language. I resolved then to prevent that loss happening in Belize…”
He is a passionate ambassador for the music of his Africa-descended Garifuna people and this year, he shares the WOMEX award with his producer-collaborator, Ivan Duran, for their fabulous Wátina album. Palacio’s mission to spread the word about the endangered Garifuna culture led to a Wátina tour this summer with the ninepiece, cherry-picked Garifuna Collective. From Slovenia to Canada, via Dublin, Liverpool and London, France and Germany, they introduced the word ‘garifuna’ (‘cassava or manioc eaters’) into many languages.
With Palacio on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, the musicians included neighbouring Hondurans (Eduardo ‘Guayo’ Cedeño playing a shimmering lead electric guitar and Rolando Sosa on rhythm guitar and honeydew melonsized maracas), and Belizeans Carlos Perrote (segunda (second) drum), Joshua Arana on primero (first) drum, Al Ovando (bass), and Giovani Chi playing four roped-together turtle-shell drums. Special guest was 83-year old Paul Nabor who received tumultuous applause everywhere – not for his longevity but his extraordinary voice. Nabor is a kind of Belizean Compay Segundo, with a countryman’s straw hat and a voice as strong and jagged as a power drill, whilst youthfully melodic and well pitched. He closed the London show with a startlingly expressive version of the harrowing ‘Yagane’ (My Canoe), accompanied only by drums.
Most surprising is this music’s distance from the salsa and merengues ubiquitous in adjacent countries, but they share the influence of reggae, which wafts amongst subtle Congolese and Haitian guitar phrases, and is particularly effective in the lilting reggae-paranda ‘Lidan Aban’ (Together). The Garifuna Collective’s shows are relaxed and family-like, but as Palacio announces, “We dance for reasons, not just for fun,” they launch into the catchy, shuffly punta-rock rhythm synonymous with Belize, the fast dum-dum-dum, dum-dum beat of maracas and drums, shaking dancers into action. Slower numbers like the paranda ‘Beiba’ (Go Away: a drunken husband’s defence) possess some of the yearning of Cape Verde’s morna tradition.
During a conversation in London before his show, Palacio explained the background to the Garifuna people – how a group of West African slaves revolted on their ship, which ran aground on St Vincent in 1635. They took refuge with the local Carib and Arawak Indians, adopted their language and some customs, and gradually created ‘a hybrid nation’ – the Garifuna. But, in 1797, St Vincent was taken by the British who expelled them to an island off Honduras. From there, they spread along the coast; Palacio is descended from the community in what became British Honduras.
As deputy administrator at the National Institute of Culture and History, he is involved in the annual Garifuna Festival which re-unites musicians from the diaspora (including the US) and the celebrations for Ancestors’ Day which marks when the Garifuna landed. At school, he recalls, “We were taught that they were ‘welcomed’ by the colonials; historians have proved the opposite – they were expelled and forced to settle in Guatemala,” he says fiercely. “But,” he adds, “The experience of being driven out of our homeland is immortalised in our national folk songs.” He explains that the Spanish-speaking Garifuna are only very recently aware of the concept of a ‘Garifuna Nation’ beyond their borders.
Palacio is a modest and open man, witty and articulate, resembling a persuasive teacher (which he once was). He inherited his musicality from his father, a fisherman who played guitar and harmonica (the boy’s first instrument) and entertained boat passengers with English folk songs, which he also taught his son. In the 70s, Palacio took up guitar, playing soul, reggae and soca, and dreaming of being a Belizean Bob Marley. Musical influences flew in by radio from Jamaica and the Francophone countries: reggae, soukous, compas and cadence all permeate his songs. After school, he taught primary school children, trained in Belize City and entered the club scene, then volunteered as a literacy teacher in Nicaragua. He sought out the coastal English-speaking communities but found no official awareness of Garifuna people: “The assumption was that all blacks were immigrants from Jamaica,” he recalls, “I worked with small groups of Garifuna and was struck by their almost complete loss of identity. People were embarrassed that they couldn’t speak the language. I resolved then to prevent that loss happening in Belize; my plan to be a soul/reggae star went on the back burner!”
“I thought the record would appeal to old people, but now there’s young people’s interest. It’s accomplishing everything I ever dreamed of”
By the 80s, musicians in Belize were Andy Palacio performing with the spritely Paul Nabor Palacio at home in Barranco, Belize experimenting with electrical instruments and the new punta-rock: “the traditional punta beat turned up a few notches and is infused with catchphrases,” is how Palacio describes it. Electric guitar punta-rock became a craze and he its favourite performer, with hit singles including ‘Ereba’ (a cassava bread, the staple of Garifuna diet), symbolising the expression of Garifuna identity. Punta’s influences included soca, while the neighbouring Latino countries drew on salsa and merengue, and today, hiphop and Jamaican dancehall flood into the region through American TV. “But,” asserts Palacio, “Punta-rock is still proudly Belize’s own national dance music.” I ask him how much of the Garifuna’s African ancestry remains in their music, and he admits that he notices similarities when watching African groups perform. But also influences from Afro-Caribbean music in Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti. “Of course,” he adds, “Africa is in the drums.” While Belize doesn’t possess a unique national instrument, the drums (primera and segunda) – doubleended barrels like congas, and often with resonating metal strings slung across the top skin to create a skiffly snare sound – are particular to the culture.
In the last few years, Palacio has turned his back on the upbeat, electric punta sound and gone ‘almost unplugged.’ Key to this new direction is his relationship with Ivan Duran, a Creole-Catalan born in Mexico, in search of traditional Belizean music but also creating 21st century dance music. Duran’s first success in 1995, with his Stonetree label, was a compilation of parandas – songs performed around Christmas by neighbours processing from house-to-house. Many punta-rock bands (including Palacio’s) perform parandas; he was part of The Paranda Project which, he explains, “got rid of the keyboards and drum kit and started to go more authentic, ie unplugged.” Palacio and Duran recorded the Wátina album in Barranco, the tiny fishing village where Palacio grew up.
They recorded in a local’s thatched beach hut, the leader adding ritual rhythms to his songs as a subtle way of drawing attention to the traditions. “In ‘Weyu Lárigi Weyu’ (Day by Day),” he says, “The hunguhungu rhythm associated with a healing ritual, is taken from the ceremonies where a family gathers with a spirit medium and dances for days.” The gorgeous ‘Baba’ (Father), a mournful ritual song accompanied by three drums, is played on Sundays in all churches. ‘Águyuha Nidúheñu’ (My People Have Moved On) is a seemingly incongruously skippy guitar-based song, adapted from that traditionally used during the ‘Nine-Night’ wakes, now a contemplation of departed ancestors. Palacio’s song ‘Ámuñegü’ (In Times to Come) refers to the Arumahani, a male dance and one of Garifuna’s most endangered musics. “The men stand in a line, hands joined, and sing a capella, in solidarity with each other’s lives – I don’t know how it survived,” says the singer, “Even the vocal style isn’t still used in daily speech. That song reflects on where we are headed as a people. The time has come for a deliberate transmission of culture to the next generation – or we’ll lose it altogether. But just as geographical areas are being declared heritage sites, so also are cultures, and in 2001, Garifuna was archived,” he adds proudly.
The Wátina album has transformed Palacio’s status abroad but, most importantly, has had profound effects at home: young musicians are adopting the Collective’s approach, “unplugging and singing Garifuna songs!” he exclaims. “I thought the record would appeal to old people because of its mature and sophisticated sound and its exploration of the soul of Garifuna music, but now there’s young people’s interest…” he pauses, “It’s accomplishing everything I ever dreamed of where our community was concerned.” He smiles a modest, contented smile.
Recommended listening: Garifuna CDs