For Andy Palacio, one of Belize’s most loved and famous musicians, music was “the soundtrack of life”.
Perhaps the most beautiful demonstration of this statement can be found in the music of his people, the Garinagu, one of the many cultures that make up the melting pot that is Belize. Product of the indigenous Arawaks of South America and shipwreck prisoners destined for slavery, the Garinagu claim St. Vincent as their homeland. Forceful exodus from the Caribbean lead to Central American settlements in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.. Throughout migratory pathways, the Garinagu have continued to use music in daily life and work to retell their story from elder to younger generation, to diminish the boredom of everyday chores, to accompany sacred rituals that maintain intergenerational bonds and to recreate a sense of shared identity despite borders.
The main instrument used in Garifuna music that requires musical accompaniment is the drum. Traditionally these drums were made from a hollowed out trunk of hardwood, covered with animal skin usually a deer, peccary or sheep which was stretched over the trunk and tightened with rope and wooden pegs and they were always played solely with the hands. Today the design is very much the same, although the hollowing out is normally done with a machine rather than by hand. In the majority of everyday secular music, two drums are involved. The main and largest drum provides the bass and is known as the Segundo. Its namesake drummer provides the regular beat. The Primero drum is usually smaller and its player uses a more complicated pattern of beats and is considered the more skilled musician. In Garifuna rituals a third larger drum is used with the central instrument, the Lanigi Garawoun (the heart drum) providing the lead for the other two drummers.
For social occasions, one of the most popular music genres and dances of the Garifuna is the Punta. This was traditionally a dance performed by men and women representing a dialogue between the two sexes performed at social gatherings and wakes. The drums and rattles accompanied the narrative text written mostly by women provides comment on the many challenges of life. Traditionally families socialized together and young people would be under strict supervision. The Punta was a way through which couples communicated interest in each other without alarming the audience or creating suspicion. Today couples doing the Punta try to outdo each other with complicated movements of the feet that sway the rest of the body, producing an impression of moving hips and bottoms. Other dances such as the Chumba, Gunjei, Wanaragua, Paranda and Hüngü Hüngü are often played in social settings.
This traditional Punta music has evolved into one of the most popular and ubiquitous style of music in Belize: Punta Rock. The artist Pen Cayetano is largely regarded as the originator of this genre of music during the 1980s. It is a faster version of traditional Punta with the addition of electric instruments such as drum, bass guitar and synthesizer and the dance accompanying it is every bit as provocative as the original. Today one of the most popular Punta artists is Supa G.
Paranda is another example of how the music has evolved over the years as the Garifuna have assimilated other musical influences from their surroundings. A gentler genre of music and dance traditionally performed by the Garifuna men, Paranda songs were used as serenades in which a group of guitar-toting performers would to from house to house in their communities performing their compositions. The singing providing the narrative accompaniment is very much the call and response, leader and chorus arrangement that is typical of some music of the Garifuna and talks about what is happening in the singers’ lives. Though the musical form is known to have been around since the early 1900s, it wasn’t until 2007 when Andy Palacio elevated Paranda to international fame with his acclaimed CD, “Watina”. After his unexpected death, the Garifuna collective, the group with which Andy had toured to promote Watina, continued to build on his legacy, creating a reputation for this more soulful exploration of Garifuna music.
The Wanaragua provides yet another “soundtrack to life”. Otherwise known as the Jonkonnu or John Canoe, the traditional dance is thought to have been created or adopted on the island of St. Vincent. Similar dances created by the slaves were performed on special occasions around Christmas; however, oral history refers to Wanaragua dancers using a guise lo lure European colonizers into Garifuna communities during the wars they fought on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century. Today the dance is usually performed between Christmas Day and Día Rey, January 6th or the feast of the epiphany. Accompanied by drumming, performers dress up in pink masks as a mocking representative of Europeans and dance from house to house for a small monetary token.
Whilst the majority of Garinagu are located in the Stann Creek district around Dangriga and Hopkins and in Barranco in the Toledo district, any visitor to Belize is sure to encounter one of the above genres of music and dance particularly around November as they celebrate the uniqueness of their culture and soundtrack of their life.
Want to experience the sounds and sights of the Garifuna culture? Then book your flight with Tropic Air and take a trip this November 19th to beautiful Dangriga.