A report by Alison Hird for RFI.
Singer-songwriter Aurelio Martinez is the leading voice of the Garifuna people – a community descended from escaped African slaves and Caribbean natives. As he releases his fourth album Darandi, he talks to RFI about the International Garifuna project to preserve and promote his people’s waning culture.
“To be ambassador of Garifuna music is very hard but it’s a huge pleasure for me. It’s not just to be a star but to bring a little bit proud to our children, to keep alive our culture. Because the Garifuna children don’t speak anymore our language so I’m a little bit of a good example to follow.”
Aurelio has been setting that “example” for some 30 years now, writing and performing Garifuna music.
He was born in the little village of Plaplaya on the Caribbean coast of Honduras and is one of the last of his generation to have been raised in the Garifuna tradition.
“We have our maternal language, maternal religion, our food, drums, different rhythmical things and different kinds of songs. We have an entire culture, living in Central America.”
Their history goes back to 1635 when a Spanish ship carrying people from modern day Nigeria to be sold as slaves in the Americas, crashed off the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. Survivors of the wreck were welcomed by the local indigenous Caribs (Arawaks) and formed inter-racial communities with the indigenous people.
In 1797 the British expelled them to Honduras and “from this mix came the Garifuna culture,” says Aurelio.
Over the next few decades they spread out along the coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.
“We’re gonna celebrate 220 years [of Garifuna culture in Honduras] this year on 12th of April,” says Aurelio, adding proudly that while “we come from a slave tribe, we’ve never been slaves.”
The first black congressman
There are 46 Garifuna communities in Honduras, but Aurelio says the many challenges they face are threatening his culture.
“In my country, Honduras, we have a lot of discrimination,” he explains, citing the fierce struggle over land ownership.
Garifuna peoples’ seaside villages are often on picture postcard locations, and eager to make its tourism industry grow, Honduras seems to value real estate over Garifuna rights. Garifuna leaders have been harassed for speaking out.
“Every single day we have a problem with the government trying to get our community from the coast,” says Aurelio.
Keen to better defend his people, the musician turned to politics and was a member of the National Congress of Honduras from 2006 to 2010.
“I was the first black congressman in 220 years in my country”, he says not without a sense of pride.
But unable to get any tangible changes in legislation he threw in the towel.
“Artists and politicians don’t work together because the spirit of art is openness and [being] sensitive to the people. You have to be honest if you want to connect to people. But politicians are a little bit different, you have to lie sometimes. I don’t like to lie.”
He regrets there are currently “no black or indigenous people representing the government”.
“So I think music is my best [way], to talk about social problems, to talk about what happens in our villages.”
Aurelio grew up in a musical family with a long musical tradition. “My mum is a singer and composer, my dad played guitar, my grandpa’s a saxophone player. I built my own guitar when I was five to try to sing, I was a good drummer when I was eight.”
Aurelio joined his first band aged 13, was an original member of the Garifuna All Star Band, went on to form the Garifuna Soul Band, and worked and recorded with the legendary Belizean Andy Palacio.
Since Palacio’s death in 2008, Aurelio has become the uncontested master of parranda: a festive blend of African, Caribbean and Latin influences, using guitar, shakers, claves and drums.
“It’s in every single [moment] in Garifuna life” says Aurelio. And rather like the Afro-Cuban trova music he’s so inspired by, talks about “social problems or daily problems in our community: HIV-Aids, losing our land, immigration…”
When there are disagreements, rather than fighting to the death, Garifuna people “just leave a message by music,” he laughs.
“Music’s a good weapon to find freedom and to leave a good message to our community. So I use this power to make change in our community.”
Reaching out through music
Aurelio’s latest album Darandi is a best-of of his most successful songs including the slinky Laru Beya, originally recorded with the Orchestra Baobab from Senegal.
Landini, a swinging, nostalgic song about love on the beach, was written in tribute to his mother.
“Landini means ‘landing’, the place where the people park their canoe, when we were waiting by the sea for our parents to come back from working on the farms. So this song’s about coming back to my village, it’s like a re-connection.”
The song Jalifu, a kind of lament, is about immigration. It was inspired by the souvenir of his dad who left home to find work in the United States when Aurelio was three years old.
“I’m waiting by the beach for my father but he don’t come. So I asked the pelican to give me wings to fly because [the bird] don’t need a visa to come to the United States to see my father.”
On the 12 tracks, all sung in the Garifuna language, Aurelio appeals to his own community not to let their culture die, and for others to take an interest.
In 2008, Unesco inscribed the language, dance and music of the Garifuna on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But that “simple declaration” is insufficient and irrelevant says Aurelio.
Through the International Garifuna Project, he hopes to reunite the Garifuna Nation in central America but also in north America “where there’s a big Garifuna community in New Orleans, New York, Huston and Texas”.
“We need government legislation to give us the special opportunity to create schools in our villages, to teach our traditions, and language, to our young generation, to keep [it] alive for the next generation.”
However dispersed, they are all descendants of a few African slaves from that one boat back in the 17th century.