Some history: In 1635 two Spanish boats filled with African slaves shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. The survivors escaped to the island, where they mixed with the indigenous Caribs and Amerindians--and the Garifuna people were born.
Resisting French and British colonization, the Garifuna people were later deported to the island of Roatan, off Honduras. From there they dispersed along the Central American coast, from Guatemala to Nicaragua.
An isolated and endangered culture, Garifuna eventually found a spokesperson in Andy Palacio--a punta musician from Belize. Palacio championed his native music, language and culture.
His internationally acclaimed 2007 album W�tina became the brightest cultural spotlight ever to shine on the Garifuna people. In many ways he saved Garifuna music from extinction.
Unfortunately, while critics still praised his success, and news headlines in Belize regularly boasted his name, Palacio died of a massive heart attack at 47 in January.
Andy Palacio had been scheduled to appear in Philly tonight. Instead, an all-star lineup of Garifuna musicians--many of whom appear on the W�tina album--will perform a tribute in his honor.
PW caught up with Palacio's producer Ivan Duran, on the phone from Belize, prior to the show.
What was the reaction in Belize to Andy Palacio's death in January?
"In Belize, Andy is considered a national hero. I think it was the biggest funeral the country has ever seen. There were several prayer services around the country, and the funeral took place in his village of Barranco, which is one of most remote communities in the country. The population of Barranco is usually between 150 and 200 people, and that day there were more than 3,000 people from all over the country there. People in Belize City lined the streets to say goodbye when they saw him down south."
I know in Livingston [a Garifuna community on the coast of Guatemala] they hold an enormous party in the cemetery every year. Does Garifuna culture have any special traditions surrounding death?
"The Garifuna believe strongly in the ancestors. When a person dies or joins the world of the ancestors, the way the wake goes it's actually a celebration of the person's life. There's a lot of music--which might be awkward for a Westerner--and a lot of dancing and basically a feast. In Garifuna culture the family thinks Andy has moved on to live with the ancestors, and in a way they try to celebrate what he accomplished while he was living."
Thanks in part to Andy there's now an annual Garifuna music festival. Will it be any different this year?
"In Belize there's a national holiday every year on Nov. 19 called Garifuna Settlement Day, and it commemorates the arrival of the Garifuna people to the shores of Belize. Last year Andy gave his last concert. It was on that day, actually. And he did it at a very small village called Hopkins where we recorded the W�tina album. It was a free concert for the village, and it was so special that that was his final concert, and I'm sure this year there will be a lot of remembrance during that day."
What's the relationship between Garifuna music and punta music?
"Punta music is Garifuna music. Punta is a traditional Garifuna rhythm. It's one of the fastest rhythms in Garifuna culture, and it goes with the punta dancing, which is a very sensual, almost erotic dance. Later on musicians transformed punta by adding some electric elements and instruments and arrangements into what is today known as punta rock. Punta is the traditional form--which is only drums and vocals--and then you have punta rock. In Belize punta rock has been the national music for many years and it still is today."
You're not Garifuna yourself. How did your connection to the music come about?
"Growing up in Belize my parents used to take me to Garifuna Settlement Day every year. And I remember being attracted to the drums. Later on when I started studying music and I got interested in African music, I started listening to a lot of Garifuna music, and when I decided to start producing, that was a natural choice."
Tell me about some of the artists on this tour.
"There's the Garifuna Collective, which is the ensemble that accompanied Andy in the last few years. One fact very few people knew is that the Garifuna Collective is actually filled with lots of talent. It just happens that Andy received most of the attention and he was basically the spokesperson for the entire movement. But the Collective includes talents like Aurelio Martinez; Lloyd Augustine; Sofia and Silvia Blanco, who are the two women from Livingston who are lead singers on the Umalali album; Mr. Paul Nabor, who has been with the group for many years. So the only thing missing is Andy, and in a way he'll be present because they were very, very close and now these guys are in charge of carrying on Andy's mission to bring Garifuna music to the world."
Andy Palacio advocated for Garifuna culture not just through music but politics and government. What specific issues did he address?
"Mainly it was to use music to instill self-pride in young Garifuna people. One of the main reasons the culture doesn't get transmitted is because the youth don't feel it's valuable and don't feel it should be a part of them. And not just the music but the language, which is a very important part of Garifuna culture. Once the language is lost, all kinds of things get lost.
"Andy was perfectly fluent in English and actually he wrote songs in English as well. But the fact that he decided to sing exclusively in Garifuna, he was making a point that this is something we have to put effort into and we just can't take it for granted that it will survive.
"[Garifuna culture] is a way of life. If you don't respect your own culture and you try to imitate North American culture, then it gets lost. There's been a lot of immigration from the Garifuna community to the U.S. and other countries, and that has affected back home. The kids are left without their parents, the whole family structure gets disintegrated, and that's when the culture ceases to get transmitted."