Aurelio Martinez: A voice for the people

The renowned musican Aurelio Martinez is a former member of the Honduran National Congress for the black and indigenous communities of the country’s Atlantic coast, as Michal Boncza explores in this report for See below for link to original report.

He was elected, he says, not because he was a gifted politician but rather because he was well known and locally trusted as an artist-cum-activist.

He was in fact the first ever black person elected to the Honduran parliament in 2005.

The Garifuna were slaves shipwrecked off St Vincent who intermingled with the local Callinago people.

With a good grasp of the cause of oppression they consequently fought the British only to be deported en masse over 200 years ago to the Atlantic coast of central America.

A tradition of resistance continues to this day and it was Garifuna marches and protests that led to Aurelio’s election.

Deceptively laid back, he is the kind of person that never does anything by halves. Under his tenure the first ever ministry for the affairs of black and indigenous peoples was set up with a Garifuna minister in charge and some positive legislation has been attempted.

But the process was cut short in 2009 when the oligarchy backed by the US stepped in and put an end to major progressive rewriting of the constitution.

One of the contested and unresolved issues is land ownership and tenure, reforms that should have secured legal rights for the coastal communities now left to the mercy of the rapacious families who own Honduras.

Aurelio was left with a bitter taste and resigned in protest. He’s now dedicating himself to setting up a Garifuna cultural foundation to provide a centre of learning that would help arrest the decline of this unique identity.

“It is a dream of mine to get it off the ground,” he says.

The Garifuna are under tremendous pressure from a plethora of fundamentalist evangelical groups hell-bent on erasing their culture.

“We are castigated for dancing, drinking, playing music and singing,” he says.

This is mostly because many of the traditional beliefs are observed and celebrated through popular, intense festivities.

“Our families are being divided and animosity replaces friendship and communal solidarity,” he points out.

He is particularly scathing about Unesco’s designation of Garifuna oral culture as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” 10 years ago.

“These are just words and words come cheap,” he stresses. “Infinitely more is needed to allow us to grow out of poverty and contribute as we should to the nation we are part of.”

As a child Aurelio could not afford an instrument and made his own guitars from cans and fishing line.

To this day the township where he was born has no electricity.

Three years ago he was invited to Senegal to record with Youssou N’Dour and the legendary Super Etoile de Dakar along with members of the equally illustrious Orchestra Baobab.

It is Senegal where the Garifuna were first captured and sold as slaves and while relaxing on the beach with fellow musicians, he saw the infamous Goree Island opposite.

“The brothers made me aware of its tragic past as a holding pen for our enslaved ancestors about to be exported to America,” he recalls. “It etched itself on my mind. It saddened me no end to learn that other black people were crucially involved in this trade.”

The “Senegalese brothers” were particularly intrigued by Garifuna drumming patterns that had evolved almost unrecognisably for them.

This is because “we were uprooted and our culture transformed by absorbing that of the Caribs and the Miskito Indians,” he explains.”But we had great musical exchanges despite no longer having anything in common culturally.”

Aurelio has been modernising Garifuna music to give it a new lease of life and make it widely accessible.

The just-released Laru Beya is a peach of an album, hauntingly evoking the melancholy of the disenfranchised human spirit.

His great concern is the prevailing racism against his own people and the coastal Miskito Indians as he recalls a poisonous remark by a fellow Honduran congressman who said that “Congress is better off without blacks.”

But he is clear that his period as a politician is over – not for him such a duplicitous existence.

But this is surely not the last that we’ll hear from Aurelio.

Aurelio plays the Barbican Centre in London on July 23. Box office: (020) 7638-8891 and Womad on July 29-30. Details:

For the original report go to

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