Music of the Garifuna, 1 of 4


I am again going to move away from recordings of the natural world and delve into some ancient recordings I made of indigenous musical culture.  Most of these tracks I will be posting can be found on commercial CDs I released over a decade ago but which I have since pulled from the market for a variety of reasons.  So you can hear a few of them now if you didn’t catch them the first time around.

The four posts of Garifuna music presented here are mostly comprised of recordings I made in Belize, one of four Central American countries where the Garifuna reside.  If you don’t already know the history of the Garifuna people I’ll provide a little background in the next two paragraphs.  It will go a long way towards appreciating the music I think.  It should be apparent even from my brief version of their story that the Garifuna are nothing if not resilient, and the fact that their culture is alive and kicking to this very day is a testament to this.

The Garifuna who now inhabit the Caribbean coastal region of Central America from southern Belize down to northern Nicaragua are the product of a melding of two groups which occurred on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent sometime in the 17th century.  It was there that African survivors of a wrecked Spanish slave ship encountered and intermingled with the indigenous Arawak and Kalinago communities, themselves descendants of people originating around the Orinoco river in what is now Venezuela.  A perhaps more radical telling of their history describes the Garifuna as the descendants of the indigenous, and of Africans said to have come to the Americas – on their own accord – as early as the 14th century.  In either case, the Garifuna, while free from colonial interference for a sufficient time to allow the roots of the present day Garifuna culture to take root and thrive, eventually fell prey to British colonial expansion.  In 1797, after suffering a defeat by the British and the death in battle of their great leader Chatoyer, the Garifuna were deported en masse to the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.  Large numbers of the defeated Garifuna did not survive this horrendous event, and those that did found themselves on an inhospitable and unfamiliar island, there to struggle for survival and salvage what they could of their culture.

The need for cheap labor eventually drew the Garifuna to mainland Central America, primarily to the town of Trujillo, Honduras.  In time Garifuna communities sprang up along the coast in either direction.  In 1832, boats filled with Garifuna escaping political events in Honduras arrived in Stann Creek, Belize, an event now celebrated every November 19th – Settlement Day – a day which has been declared a national holiday in Belize.  In 1937, another migration of Garifuna, escaping persecution and massacre in Honduras, settled the village of Hopkins, Belize.

* * * *

I recorded a lot in Belize.  My ambition was to record examples of every extant Garifuna traditional musical style, and to record musicians in all the towns and villages in Belize with significant Garifuna populations, and in this I nearly succeeded.  The recordings in this first post were made in Hopkins, a seaside village an hour or so south of Belize City.  When these were recorded, in May 2001, Hopkins was a village with some tourist presence in resorts on the outskirts of town, but more importantly was known as the foremost cultural center for the Garifuna people in Belize.

This first track is a medley of three songs sung to a drum pattern called hungu-hungu.  Hungu-hungu is something of an oddball drum pattern and dance in Garifuna drum music in that it is in 3/4 time and not the usual 4/4; additionally, it is the secular version of the adugurahani, the drum beat, dance and song used to accompany the sacred dugu ceremony practiced by the Garifuna in order to communicate with their ancestors.  The three songs in this medley are Kaba San Iñurana (“Who is going to help me?”), Ka San Uban To Gibeboun Ewigi Tura (“Who owns that colorful house?) and Anihan Sandi (“The Illness is Here”).  These titles and translations were provided to me by the singer and drummer, Conrad Lino, who was accompanied by Belaine Flores, Nuta Flores and Kirk Martinez.

I remember this recording this track well.  It was the first track of the first recording session I ever made with serious recording equipment and with the intent to possibly create a documentary CD of the music.  We recorded on a hot, sunny morning on the white sand yard of Belaine’s home on the beach in Hopkins, with grackles chirping in the trees that lined the road.  A few tracks into the session, I recall, Belaine saw a friend walking down the road, waved hello, and walked away from her drum to go speak with her … and that was the end of the recording session.  No matter, I still managed to record some great performances.

(Recorded May 10, 2001)

Following is a recording I made in Hopkins on less sophisticated equipment (a cassette recorder) and of a more casual performance.  King Kasava was (and maybe still is) a restaurant and bar (a “cool spot” as they call them in Belize) located at the entrance to Hopkins Village.  The owner of King Kasava kept a set of garaon – the Garifuna hand drums – at the bar so that anyone who wished could play them.  The purpose of the drums was two-fold, I believe:  One, it was his wish to help further Garifuna culture in the town, and in this it was effective.  Drummers who couldn’t afford to buy their own set would come by the bar and sit down on a little bench out in the sandy yard to play a little if they had the time, and I recall more than one occasion when I saw a father giving lessons to his young son there.  Secondly, it was economically strategic to have the drums.  On Friday nights a good crowd might show up to drum and dance and sing, and with any luck a van load of tourists from one of the nearby resorts might come by for an evening of entertainment.  Such was the occasion when I made this recording.  A group of about ten tourists (aside from myself) were present, looking on and drinking beer, but it hardly mattered – the locals were having a fine time all by themselves (which will be obvious upon hearing the recordings) and the music and dance continued long after the tourist van drove away.

I am not certain who the two drummers are on this particular track, though quite possibly it was Conrad (whose voice I definitely hear in this track) and his friend Phillip Lewis, a local police officer who was also one helluva a good drummer (and whom I later had the opportunity to record more carefully).  The smooth, driving rolls coming from the primera drum on this track certainly sound like his.

(Recorded Spring, 2000)


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