Andy Palacio is a tough person to pin down. After all, he is the reputed “King of Punta Rock,” the driving dance beat from Belize that, believe it or not, can incorporate the fast tempo of Merengue, the swinging groove of Zouk, the thumping backbeat of Soca, and a range of other Afro-Caribbean and African forms. Most significantly though, this music is sung, predominantly, in Garifuna, a language derived from the meeting of Africans and Caribs on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century, then called “Black Caribs” and known today as the Garifuna. This is yet another legendary Caribbean story of Maroon culture. A story of people who escaped the plantations to build, defend, and sustain alternate societies long before the end of slavery.
In the ’90s, in anticipation of an English Royal visit to Jamaica, graffiti at the entrance of the University of the West Indies campus carried a provocative response: “Nanny a fi we queen.” Nanny, a national hero in Jamaica, was a Maroon leader, warrior, and mother figure, who died in the 1750s. She was able to secure tenure of areas in Jamaica for her community which remain relatively intact even today.
But this is not a Caribbean concern exclusively. The pioneering American theatrical troupe the African Theatre presented The Drama of King Shotaway in New York in 1823, written by its leader William Henry Brown. This was a play about Chatoyer of St. Vincent, a Garifuna ancestor who led the last stand in an extended era of resistance to European occupation and domination of that island until he was killed in the eighteenth century. The Garifuna were early protagonists of strategic guerilla warfare and global diplomacy, forging expedient alliances with competing European kingdoms in the region. But they were eventually defeated, dislodged and banished by the English. They set sail in 1797 landing initially at Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.
Who would think such a long and proud history is maintained and transmuted through the persistence of the language and culture of Punta Rock? For Palacio, this journey, which began in Africa and the Orinoco delta via St. Vincent and now continues along the Central American coast, illustrates the strength of the Garifuna culture that has survived, and is now conveyed through its ability to reflect, celebrate, and express joy in the space created by its music and language—initially in the region and now beyond.
Currently, Palacio is also the Deputy Administrator/Cultural Ambassador of the National Institute of Culture and History in Belize, following in the footsteps of many of his people, renowned for their accomplishments in education in Belizean society and their multi-lingual dexterity. We try to get a conversation going as one hurricane after another threatens the coastal areas of Belize and politics in Belize City continue to heat up. He keeps saying to me, “These are hectic times.” I can still see the resilient smile I first encountered in his office in Belmopan earlier this year.
Christopher Cozier Andy, most texts refer to you being abroad and then becoming more concerned through your music about Garifuna culture. Were you in Nicaragua?
Andy Palacio My concern was general. I simply focused on music as the means to express those concerns. For example, on the issue of us not controlling our destiny, I wrote “Samina Humei” which means “Think about it” with the following lyrics:
Ganei hamali muwa (They [the rich and powerful] have bought the land)
Ganei hamali barawa (They have bought the sea)
Gamálali lidan furendei (They dictate the educational system)
Gáhabu lidan gumadi (They have their hands in government)
Samina humei san . . . numádagu (Think about it, my friends)
Nicaragua 1980–1981 was a life-altering experience for me. I had gone there as a volunteer to serve in the country’s National Literacy Campaign. The campaign was being conducted in English for peoples of the Atlantic coast. What I found in the Garifuna village of Orinoco—a culture so lost that nobody under the age of 50 could hold a conversation with me in our language; our music, dances and other traditional practices were gone—foreshadowed what Garifuna communities in Belize would become one generation later if corrective action was not taken. It was a real wake-up call and I felt I had a role to play in ensuring that our culture be preserved and promoted.
CC So it was not just a matter of being outside of Belize that heightened your awareness or your ability to take these issues up more directly or creatively?
AP Actually, I am better able to restore a sense of pride in our identity as Garifuna people being on the ground in our community. This was particularly important for the younger generation. It was about being Garifuna and being cool with it. Back then, what being abroad afforded me was the opportunity to harness current technology and apply it to our cause. I was able to record Garifuna songs in 24-track recording studios in California and this led to us getting more airplay on Belizean radio.
CC Could you then say that Garifuna stories cross the national borders of the region? Where does the culture begin and end?
AP There is only one Garifuna story. As an identifiable ethnic group, our story began in St. Vincent. Today the Garifuna Nation, while not a political nation, does indeed span several countries. We continue to see ourselves as one people, separated only by national boundaries.
CC Could you give me a sense of the scale of this community that resides in the region, through which countries or coasts?
AP Garifuna communities are scattered along the Caribbean coast of Central America. There are three in Nicaragua, over 30 in Honduras, two in Guatemala and six in Belize. These account for a population of over a quarter million (including tens of thousands in the United States).
CC You have spoken of “cultural erosion,” can you put that in context?
AP When I arrived in Orinoco at the age of 19, there were fewer than 10 persons who could converse with me in our language. Practically nobody had retained the knowledge of our songs and our dances. Skills such as drum-making and basketry associated with the preparation of cassava bread were gone. In this region they had gone so far as to have their identity distorted. They referred to themselves as “kerob,” which, to us in Belize, is a derogatory term. (It is a corruption of the word “carib.”) For the ignorant or the unwilling, there was no distinction between the Carib and the Garifuna. For a long time (even today) there are those who still call us Black Caribs. The majority have never actually seen a Carib. Garinagu started living in close proximity with slave populations in Central America in the early 1800s. It is reasonable to believe that this term may have been coined around that time.
CC Does this mean that there is also one language as well as a basic series of beliefs and cultural traditions or practices?
AP Our language is essentially the same throughout, except in some cases where those of us from Belize substitute an English word for one that does not exist in Garifuna and those from the Central American republics substitute a Spanish word. The same is true of other elements of our culture including music and spiritual practices. One can observe only certain regional variations in elements such as dances and cuisine.
CC Before I forget to ask—what does the word “Garifuna” come from or mean?
AP I don’t know that the word actually has a meaning per se. It is what we have always called ourselves, even while outsiders referred to us as “Caribs” or “Black Caribs.” The word “Garinagu” is the plural form of the noun “Garifuna” and I am aware that the Caribs of Dominica call themselves “Kalinago.” There is a connection there somewhere but that is for the anthropologists to unravel.
CC Caribbean music always seems to the outside ear to be happy, playful. Yet it contains quite serious concerns . . . . You also seem to be moving away from the street and immediate viability of standard Punta Rock. Coming from Trinidad this conversation interests me a lot. You began like Bob Marley, doing covers?
AP I used to do a lot of Lionel Ritchie and Gregory Isaacs, some Sparrow, Otis Redding, and Kool and the Gang covers.
CC And then what happened?
AP Belize’s geographic location has a lot to do with the music that influenced me while growing up. As an English-speaking nation in Central America, our national radio station had a very diverse playlist. This included reggae, soca, and calypso from the West Indies; funk, soul, country, pop, and disco from North America as well as salsa, rancheras, boleros, and merengue from Latin America. With my interest in music, I listened to everything and we tried to play whatever was popular on the radio. Upon my return from Nicaragua, I heard Pen Cayetano and the Turtle Shell Band doing something new with Garifuna music. These guys were adding electric guitars and amplification to the traditional Garifuna drums and maracas and it was very appealing. What was even more appealing to me was that they were composing in our language. It was then that I decided to follow suit and focus on composing contemporary Garifuna songs.
CC Andy, since we are talking about definitions I am going to let you get away with the West Indies thing, as, astonishingly, we ourselves still use it, but only for the regional cricket team . . . just teasing.
Your song “Keimoun Yurumein,” which moves between English and your language—it sounds quite celebratory to me. And as I had said, I find it so difficult in the region to separate the existential sense—an inner joy or the “smile” in and of the music—from the imposed exotic associations. It’s often about who owns the meaning.
AP “Keimoun Yurumein,” simply put, means “Let’s go to St. Vincent.” There is a deeper meaning though. It is about satisfying that Garifuna nostalgia for our original homeland. Hence I wrote:
The voice of my ancestors. Calling calling. From the land of my forefathers. Calling calling. Keimoun Yurumein!
CC Even though I do not speak the language I can feel the energy and the requirements of the beat upon my body or in my head. There seems to be a space that one goes to that is older than oneself and beyond one’s individual self. You just have to be in that crowd dancing, listening and sharing that movement. David Rudder calls it the Ministry of Rhythm with him as the director.
The first thing I heard from you was actually on an early compilation with Two Foot Cow by Babylon Warriors and stuff like that. You had—Samudi Gunou—with a driving beat, real breakdown stuff. It starts with a dancehall-like drum roll . . . sounds like a lot of fun. Tell me something about the impact of the lyrics being in your language on the home front and then abroad?
AP For me, singing in my own language was more a matter of pride than anything else. Even if the song did not have any deep social or spiritual message, what mattered was the fact that it was contributing to the continued use and appreciation of the language. Internationally, it became part of my artistic identity. My novelty was largely due to my songs being sung in a “non-mainstream” language. I was really inspired by Kassav’ and Alpha Blondy, who I began listening to around the mid-’80s.
CC What were the initial challenges? Were people affronted or concerned in any way? Was your approach seen as a threat to the purity of the culture?
AP My use of modern technology in Garifuna music was in fact welcomed across age, ethnic, and geographic barriers. The traditional forms continued to flourish in their own settings while we gained more ground through innovation. In the recording studio, I (along with my arrangers and producers) was utilizing Garifuna rhythms such as Punta and Paranda, re-creating the drumming pattern on the drum machine and adding arrangements for keyboards, bass, guitars, brass and percussion. On top of that we were adding live Garifuna drumming and turtle shell percussion, with songs sung primarily in Garifuna with some English, Spanish and Belize Kriol.
CC I am intrigued by contemporary ways of working in which traditional or indigenous forms reach out to the latest technologies and trends rather than resist and worry like old fashioned anthropologists about purity and preservation . . . it feels like a more expansive space . . . less tragic and despairing perhaps.
AP We have demonstrated that coexistence is possible and that one does not negate the existence of the other. As a matter of fact, after I had developed an audience for my Punta Rock repertoire, I went ahead and recorded the single “Punta Medley,” which was essentially traditional Garifuna singing and drumming. It became an instant hit in Belize in 1993 when it was released on Caye Records.
CC Was this when you guys came on strong and “Brukdown” music was taken over by Punta Rock or was it earlier?
AP By that time, Brukdown had experienced its own decline. Punta Rock took over Belize around the mid-’80s. It was in 1987 that Punta Rock became a nationwide craze; any band wishing to survive had to add Punta Rock to their repertoire.
CC I have had long and interesting conversations with contemporary artist Marcel Pinas of Suriname who is of Maroon origin and speaks Ndjuka, an English-based Creole of eastern Suriname spoken by Maroons since the 18th century. It has been said that it is related to Sranan, from West Africa, and that speakers of both languages can communicate to a limited degree. Ndjuka is distinctive as it has its own syllabic writing developed by its speakers. Pinas wants to bring people’s attention to his cultural origins but through his experimental works rather than through re-creations. Is it an interesting negotiation standing at the boundary of people’s romantic obsessions?
AP Well, my strategy worked perfectly in my community, which includes Belizeans in the diaspora. First, we went all the way with electronics, which gained an audience, and then gradually stripped to the point where the traditional forms now enjoy similar mass appeal.
CC Musically I hear the strains from contemporary Calypso and Soca as well as Zouk and contemporary West African forms . . . you are processing quite a lot here.
AP I do a lot of listening and I don’t restrict my outlook. Guys like Michael Hyde and Junie Crawford, who worked with me as arrangers also interacted with Frankie McIntosh, for example. I did some of my early work with Lenny Hadaway in London and Lenny was doing work with Nelson, Scrunter, Arrow, Crazy, and so on at the time. Now you see? That is where the West Indian connection in my music lies.
CC I also heard that the legendary Calypso Rose came to Belize a lot and was a big Punta fan. But, yes, I do see now. This is going on more and more today with the electronic rhythms of Soca and dancehall as the producers move around the region and operate in the “cold” as they say.
I want to ask about the rap tradition. You know we had the Rapso Movement in the early ’70s in Trinidad and then there is the more known dancehall of Kingston, which overlaps with the rap scene in the US and elsewhere. Now they are talking about reggaeton. Was there anyone like that guy El General, from Panama I think, whose song “Muevelo” was big, and who must have been a reggaeton precursor, in your context?
AP I know of a few guys from Guatemala and Honduras who have been experimenting with Garifuna lyrics over dancehall and reggaeton beats. Most notable are Remolino from La Ceiba, Honduras, and Pisin from Livingston, Guatemala.
CC From outside of Belize, in the rest of the Caribbean we see the Garifuna as part of our culture of resistance and retention of lost African heritages. Whether it is the Maroons of Jamaica or Suriname or those of St. Vincent where you have roots, this aspect of Creole identity or being seems to have a problematic relationship with the alleged Central American mainstream. Is this further complicated by many of you having Hispanic names?
AP It is true that history has not been very kind to us. Indeed, while we have lost so much, we have retained a lot. The fact that we have acquired Spanish (and in some cases, Portuguese) last names in the process has, in fact, helped us to maintain an identity as a distinct ethnic group. In Belize, if one is black and has a last name like Palacio, it would be fair to assume that he or she is Garifuna as opposed to being Creole.
CC Let’s take a very brief glance at the politics of this—does this clear sense of language and identity generate some resentment on the home front?
AP Actually, in a subtle way, yes. We are, to some extent, perceived by outsiders as “clannish.”
CC One can speculate that there were attempts at genocide against the Maroons in Suriname during the civil war, just after independence in the 1980s, by the coastal Creole nationalist regimes because of these kinds of resentments. Let’s also look at this shifty word “Creole” for a second, which means different things in different islands and at different moments in our histories. Some in the French speaking countries have proposed the idea that “Creole,” as a process of being, is different from, let’s say, an “American” process. Broadly, the first is about an all inclusive creative process of self construction, and the latter is about being exclusive and apart from other groups, but involved in what is called “progressive adaptation.” One comes out of the processes of slavery and trans-shipment, the other from a migratory process in which there are less aggressive impositions on language, culture and beliefs. Can the Garifuna experience be all at once? Or maybe another word is needed?
AP In Belize, the distinction is much clearer. We Garinagu do not refer to ourselves as “Creole.” The Creole (or Kriol) population of Belize refers to the descendants of Africans including those with mixed European ancestry.
CC Almost implying “cultureless” to some? It was suggested to me that the rise of Punta and the Garifuna language was also part of the vanguard of identity politics with the Belizean Black Power movement. People talk about the days of Evan X. Hyde, who got a scholarship to study in the US and recoginzed parallels with the Belizean colonial reality. On his return to Belize, he started a “cultural movement” called UBAD (United Black Association for Development). I got the impression that his statements and views influenced the total black society, Creole and Garinagu, but alarmed the Hispanic community then, who objected to being categorized as “black” or even “non-white.” It was then the beginning of a shame-faced realization by Belizean Creole society, who generally aspired to the British colonial ideals, of the part they had played in the oppression of fellow blacks and it marked the proud emergence of the Garinagu, who, one could say, had a “culture” (certainly language, music, patterns of intra-group interaction and behavior) and self-knowledge of their own worth.
AP The recognition of the Garinagu’s strong sense of identity goes way back before Punta Rock. What Punta Rock accomplished was to give Belize its own “national sound.” Punta Rock was born around the same time Belize became independent in 1981. At its highest point, Punta Rock was no longer simply “Garifuna.” It had become “Belizean” in that there was then a sense of national ownership. I don’t think it went very far in inspiring the other cultures in Belize to examine their own realities and pursue a similar path.
CC People in the Anglophone Caribbean often suspect that the black presence in Central America is extremely marginalized or written out of most narratives.
AP Not only in Central America. I had the surprise of my life when I visited Barlovento in Venezuela. The music, the dancing, the cuisine were all reminiscent of my community back home in Belize. I might never have known of the existence of that black community if I had relied on the mass media. Venezuela’s public image is generally that of “Miss Universe.” The Central American republics aren’t very far behind in that regard, however it is evident that efforts are being made by the people themselves to become more visible as black communities in Central America. Some of their contributions have received national recognition, but certainly much more needs to be done.
CC What does this imply about the new term “coastal Caribbean” that has been popping up in recent discussions about the Caribbean? We often see Latin America as being in a state of denial in terms of black identity, almost as being in a pre-Second World War social and political head space, compared to the Anglophone Caribbean or the US.
AP There is clearly a growing recognition and appreciation for the “coastal Caribbean” of Latin America. Mexico has made great strides in promoting areas such as Cancun and Veracruz through Caribbean festivals. This year, the president of Nicaragua is convening a Garifuna summit on Corn Island, which will involve heads of state from Guatemala Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dominica. Of course, the Anglophone Caribbean has always enjoyed the luxury of being ethnic majorities in their territories.
CC So lets get back to the music . . . . What are you working on now?
AP There is a new CD as yet untitled which will be released within a few months by Stonetree Records. Some of the tracks are my compositions and the rest are contributed by various Garifuna composers. The majority of them are duets with other Garifuna artists, including Paul Nabor and Aurelio Martinez, who is from Honduras. This time around, we are reaching deeper into the forms of Garifuna music. Actually, there is no Punta Rock on it and it is an international collaboration, involving talent from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Belize.
CC So modern technology has allowed the return to one’s roots for continued reenergizing and ongoing outward movement for production and marketing? Does this imply a future for capacity development and enhancement while at the same time in some sense “watering down” the original Garifuna culture-drive into a broader collective that is stronger, but has a lesser claim to specific roots?
AP Not necessarily. Authentic, unadulterated Garifuna music will be recorded and documented as part of a regional project, which was recently submitted to UNESCO for consideration as part of the plan for the safeguarding of the Garifuna language, music and dance. But Stonetree is a record company with business as a primary concern.
CC Sandra Bell, a Trinidadian, who is a Punta fan and also a musician told me a lot about the music and the communities it responds to in the US. She also claims that most of the musicians have moved to the US and Europe.
AP I don’t think that’s entirely true. But what is true is that most of the recording is done in the United States. The majority of us are based right here in Central America, our communities are overflowing with talent and material. But most of us do not enjoy the kind of access to financing and technology as do our cousins in the US, where most of the today’s Garifuna recordings are made. The disposable income of our counterparts living there allows them to buy musical instruments, computers, software, and other pieces of recording equipment and turn out CDs from their own home studios. That might contribute to the perception that there are more of them over there than here in the region.
For me, it has been a long journey but it has had its share of rewards. Garifuna music, after all these years, can now be picked up at Tower Records, amazon.com, Borders, and just about everywhere else. It is only a matter of time before we hit the mainstream through a major label. However, my biggest dream is for our music and dance to be exposed and available to our own people right here in the Caribbean.
—Christopher Cozier, an artist and writer living in Trinidad, is a member of the editorial collective of Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, published and distributed by Indiana University Press. Cozier has served as an adviser to the international residency program at CCA7 Caribbaen Contemporary Arts 7 in Port of Spain and works in collaboration with a number of younger developing artists.