The Garifuna, once known as Black Caribs, are a really unique and practically unheard of ethnic group, of about 250,000 people, who live along the Caribbean coast of Central America, though mostly in Honduras. As the story goes, during the Caribbean colonial era, two slave ships got shipwrecked on St. Vincent, a little island given by the French and English to the last remaining indigenous Caribs and Arawaks in return for an end of indian raids on the colonies. The Caribs accepted the Africans into their society, whose numbers increased as escaped slaves throughout the Caribbean made their way to the island. Over time, they adopted the language and culture of the Carib, and became the Garifuna, and became fairly prosperous farming and selling goods to colonists on other islands. The ever-greedy English hungry for more cane-growing land of course broke the treaty and began to clear plantations on the free island. Just at this time, French Revolutionary ideas and the nearby Haitian Revolution sparked a war between the Garifuna and English. Eventually, the English won, but had such a hard time doing so that they decided to just deport the entire population to Central America.
Those were the early 1800s, and since the Garifuna have spread up and down the coast. They are the only black population in Americas to have never been enslaved, and the last living speakers of indigenous Caribbean languages. Up until the 1960s or so, they lived very traditionally on a subsistence basis – the women harvested yucca and coconuts and men fished the sea; houses were made of sticks, adobe or palm fronds, with thatched roofs. People were catholic but practiced elaborate ancestor-worship ceremonies called dugu. They are without doubt beach people – no Garifuna really lives more than a couple of hundred feet from the sea, and seafood (especially conch soup) makes up most of the diet.
Times have changed though, and the two big bad words “globalization” and “transculturation” have shaken things up. Little known fact is that a huge percentage of Garifuna live in the Bronx, and people from the communities go back and forth a lot legally and illegally. Being very comfortable out at sea, many Garifuna men a generation ago found work in the merchant marine or on international cruise ships, and used that mobility to find their way to New York. As a result, the reality of most Garifuna lies somewhere on the spectrum of traditional and American ways of doing things. And it’s all very hard to get a grasp on. Garifuna in Honduras tend to claim that they are extremely poor – while I am in no position to really refute that, Garifuna communities don’t look poor, not at first sight, and not at all compared to rural Honduran campesinos you see throughout the country living in collapsing wooden shacks, or the crowded squalor of the Dominican barrios I worked in. Most of the palm-and-stick homes have been replaced with comparatively spacious suburban-California-style concrete houses, most people have TVs and stereo systems, and mostly everybody is rocking some kind of designer or clever imitation ghetto-wear. Indeed, black American culture has successfully been imported to the seaside villages, and most everybody under thirty sports either fitted caps and basketball jerseys or hardcore Jamaican rasta stylings. Yet at the same time many people in the communities are going hungry. While many people still harvest their yucca or go out at night in oar-propelled canoes into the ocean depths to catch dinner for the week, many sit around and wait for remissions from relatives in the states. While the picturesque but probably not-so-much-fun-to-live-in palm and thatch houses still abound, most have been converted into tool sheds or bathrooms, or spaces to perform rituals for the ancestors. The towns are also pretty isolated – to get to one called Santa Fe, I bumped along a mud road for an hour, crossing four rivers in the back a pick-up truck, only to incongruously land in what looks like a middle-class American town dumped onto a dirt road in the jungle. Or maybe I just forgot what America looks like.
The oldest generation, especially women, is wearing traditional patterned dresses and head wraps and gabber unintelligibly (to me) in Garifuna, while the youngest kids run around in the ocean all day signing Panamanian reggae songs and don’t speak a work of the language. Most people in-between these extremes can speak Garifuna, but mostly speak Spanish, switching over for the occasional anecdote, or sentence (or I suspect, to make fun of the weird gringo hanging around and asking where to find musicians.) It seems to me that there is a pretty obvious divide between Garifuna with family in the states and those without. One of my teachers in Trujillo, named Pancho, had no family abroad, and was very poor as a result. He lived with his seemingly endless children in a tiny dwelling and was definitely hustling to get by. Yet at the same time, he was the most impressive person that I’ve met, living and breathing the traditions. While others sat on their asses drinking moonshine, he would wake up and make a drum, then go fix a boat, and then spend all night fishing, and then play a concert the next day.
While Garifuna towns still alternatingly laze in the midday Caribbean sun and bustle with Caribbean exuberance, they are communities in crisis. Among people old enough to care, there is a lot of talk about culture – people understand that that Garifuna beat is unico-en-el-mundo and incredibly important to hold on to, and they are losing it before there eyes. Garifuna struggle to hold on to their communal land rights in the face of encroaching land-starved mestizos and strong-arm developers who want to sea the beautiful Honduran coast dressed in high-rises. They struggle to modernize and keep their traditions at the same time; they struggle to get their kids to learn to speak their language, just a little too little too late. They struggle, first and foremost, to find opportunities – there is just no work, anywhere, at least not without going to larger Honduran cities, and so people leave, because it’s the only way to make anything change. And due to immigration, Garifuna really has improved their material conditions incredibly. But nobody knows exactly how to go forward and keep proudly living Garifuna style at the same time.
One interesting twist is that practically nobody in the villages still host dugu, an elaborate ritual that takes a year to fully complete. Its just too godamn expensive. Yet relatives in the states who feel the need to placate the ancestors (“forgive me grandma for choosing the Bronx?”), host several in every town every year. It’s that the going rate for the ceremony is about $13K, only affordable on an American salary and even then not so much. Yet this has created a way for, spirit mediums, drum-makers, musicians, and dancers to eek out a living.
Anyway what I’m really here for is the music, and there is plenty of it. There are many traditional styles, played on drums of various sizes sporting jury-rigged snares out of guitar strings, sea turtle shells, and maracas. They range from a Christmas mask dance called jancuru, to ritual music played on giant versions of the drums, to social commentary dance songs called hungunhugun. These styles are mostly played at traditional or folkloric events, at specific times during the year. My favorite stuff though, is parranda. It’s the Garifuna blues – tragic minor key soul jams played on guitar, played with a strum that is really hard to understand. Sadly, very few young people play guitar, and the music is fading. My senator-pop-star host is among the only young people driving the music forward. Parranderros, as the bluesmen are called, are universally awesome tired-eyed and sun-scarred badasses. This video is of a parranda played by Pancho, who I mentioned earlier. His hands are kinda messed up and had trouble playing, but you can get a glimpse of the awesome.
Better known though is punta, a modern adaptation of, bizarrely enough, funeral music, which is played by modern-style electric bands and has come to be the national music of
Honduras. The basis for this, as Aurelio tells it, that Garifuna believe that when a man dies, another man must replace him. Velorios, or wakes, are thus festive events celebrating human fertility, and women dance around a beach bonfire doing a provocative dance in order to symbolically fulfill the creation of a new person, aka, sex.
Somehow or another this turned into pan-Caribbean party music that took off in the late 80s and 90s known as punta rock. Despite the penchant of some musicians for synthesized horns and drum machines, its really cool stuff, combining elements from merengue and soca with the off-kilter 6/8 Garifuna groove that’s hard to get a grasp on. The dance involves incredibly high speed booty shaking, that I am either not doing right or is just really exhausting. Punta was the most popular music in Central America for a while, though just now it’s being supplanted by the cancer that is reggaeton. One common Garifuna complaint many ladinos, as mestizos are called here, used the image of Garifuna culture to sell punta on the international scale – the first band to take off in the style, to give you an idea, was called the Banda Blanca (uhh, White Band). Indeed there’s a difference between Garifuna punta bands and those that just threw in one drummer for good measure. But business-savvy ladinos get the lion’s share of the pie, and just aren’t quite as good.
Though I was having trouble finding a live music scene, ironically, in the country’s party capital of La Ceiba, it is alive and well in Trujillo. I already wrote in my last post about the dance parties I went to, but not enough can be said. It makes any other party you ever go to forever after comparatively lame. Despite modernization and what not, people still really get down in an old-school way. The hot band in town is Renovacion Lunu, a bunch of young guys who play punta rock and parrandas at high speeds, only with percussion and voice, so its modern Garifuna stylings that sound like traditional music. On my trip to Santa Fe, I recorded a demo for them, which you can here a little of (unprocessed), right here: Lunu2ndSong.m4a
I passed my week in Trujillo meeting a million people and taking lessons and just being in the awesomest place ever, and I kinda regret not choosing to be there the whole time. I had not one but two Thanksgivings, one with Lillian’s awesome family, and one with Naomi and the 5 million American volunteers in her little town of Cofradia. Much more to be said, but this post is already very long, and you have things to do.