Aurelio Martinez Has a Garifuna Soul

Aurelio Martinez—a Central American singer, composer, and guitarist from a small fishing village in Honduras—comes to Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on October 15. He brings a bittersweet vocal style to guitar-accompanied ballads and other traditional song forms, particularly Garifuna music. Robert H. Browning, with Michael Stone and Ivan Duran, provide a brief history of the music.

Garifuna Music

The history of the Garifuna people dates to 1635, when two large European ships carrying kidnapped Africans were wrecked in the eastern Caribbean near the island of St. Vincent. Survivors swam ashore and took refuge among the indigenous Carib people, who absorbed the escapees. Fiercely independent, the Garifuna resisted colonization for more than 150 years until the British captured St. Vincent in 1797 and they were exiled to the Islas de la Bahía, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Soon after, they settled in the coastal regions of Central America, creating communities in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Combining powerful vocals with a dense percussive base, Garifuna music is unlike that of any other in Central America. While parallels can be drawn with other Caribbean traditions, the genres created by the Garifuna people are unique. As a population never enslaved, this culturally hybrid, multilingual people maintained discernible West African elements in their music, echoing the three-drum ensemble common to African percussive traditions on both sides of the Atlantic. Garifuna singing and drumming entails a fiercely percussive, communal call-and-response rooted in the sacred context of ancestral invocations and spirit possession, as in Cuban santería, Haitian vodoun, and Brazilian candomblé. The most popular Garifuna secular traditional genres are paranda and punta. Paranda (Spanish for carousal) adds an acoustic guitar to the Garifuna drum tradition; the punta couple dance (named for its characteristic rhythm) recalls the pelvic thrust, or vacunao, of the Cuban rumba guaguancó form.

In the early 1980s, punta rock, a creation commonly attributed to Belizean Garifuna musician, composer, and artist Delvin “Pen” Cayetano, added the amplified guitar to the Garifuna rhythm ensemble. Punta rock’s upbeat message of cultural awareness and mutual respect has spilled over into the rest of Caribbean Central America. Among this ethnically diverse population, it has also fostered an expansive sense of national identity both at home and abroad, and has brought belated recognition of the minority Garifuna population’s contributions to the region.

The Garifuna garaón drum ensemble comprises the lead primera or heart drum, the counter-rhythmic segunda or shadow drum, and the steady bass-line tercera. An unusual adaptation is the use of snares—one or two guitar strings or wires stretched over the drumhead to achieve the buzzing sound also favored in some West African music cultures. This lends a highly valued denseness to the overall sound. Additional traditional instruments include turtle-shell percussion, bottle percussion, claves, and a variety of shakers and scrapers drawn from the Amerindian music of St. Vincent. Garifuna musicians have expanded their instrumental array with European additions, while also incorporating English, Jamaican, Haitian, and Latin American folk elements along with reggae, country, R&B, and rock gleaned from radio broadcasts.

The two artists who have been at the forefront in furthering Garifuna music in recent years are the late Andy Palacio, a Belizean musician who popularized punta rock, and Honduran artist Aurelio Martinez, who has been a major force in maintaining and expanding the paranda tradition. Paranda refers both to a rhythm prevalent in Garifuna traditional drumming styles and also to a genre of music. While the rhythm can be traced to the Garifuna’s roots in West Africa, paranda as a genre was born in the early 19th century when the Garifuna settled in coastal Central America. It was there that they encountered Latin American music, adding the guitar and elements of Spanish and Latin rhythms. In their chronicling of daily life from social ills and romantic trysts to humorous tales and a penchant for improvisation, the songs bring to mind the great Caribbean tradition of calypso. Martinez has continued to modify and expand the music, while adhering to its roots. A recent sojourn in Senegal where he mentored with Youssou N’Dour and met and recorded with many Afropop artists—both famous and unknown—opened new avenues and drew worldwide attention to his most recent Laru Beya recording.

Continuing the legacy of Palacio and other important Garifuna artists, Martinez uses his art to further the cause of his people, to inform, to educate, and to explore new territory. His work, along with that of both older and younger members of his community, provides a beacon for oppressed people throughout the world. Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Garifuna music is that it not only chronicles the miseries of an oppressed people, but celebrates their steadfast resilience and their joie de vivre. According to Martinez, “We’re not going to let this culture die. I know I must continue the culture of my grandparents, of my ancestors, and find new ways to express it. Few people know about it, but I adore it, and it’s something I must share with the world.” The Garifuna music takes its place firmly with the blues, flamenco, tango, reggae, Portuguese fado, and Greek rembetiko in evoking the soul of a community.

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