A Tribute to Andy Palacio and Garífuna Culture
Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl
The Belizean musician and singer Andy Palacio unexpectedly died this past January at the young age of 47. His latest CD “Wátina,” released in early 2007, was rated among the best world music albums in recent years, and some critics even said that it is among the best world music albums of all times. In 2007 Andy Palacio won the prestigious WOMEX (World Music Expo) award, and he was nominated the UNESCO Artist for Peace. In 2008 Andy Palacio won the BBC World Music Award in the “Americas” category.
What makes this musician and composer unique on the stage of world music is the fact that he is Garífuna, an ethnic minority that lives along Central America’s Caribbean coast. The Garífuna are descendants of shipwrecked African slaves that mixed with the Carib Indians in the Caribbean islands several centuries ago. After being expelled by the British colonial administration in the early 1800, they were shipped to one of the Bay Islands in Honduras (Roatán), from where they reached the mainland of Central America and eventually migrated along the coast, all the way south to Nicaragua and north to Belize. Although the Garífuna people are ethnically predominantly African, their language and culture is mostly Carib in origin, forming a unique blend of African and Native American traditions.
Andy Palacio began his musical career playing and composing songs in the Belizean Punta Rock genre, a fast-paced dance music based on Caribbean rhythms and modern dance music with some Garífuna influences. But after visiting several Garífuna communities in Nicaragua, Palacio realized that the traditional culture and language of his people were slowly dying out all across Central America. This prompted him to work on compositions that explored more thoroughly the musical roots and traditions of his Garífuna people, which resulted in his last release “Wátina” in early 2007. All songs on “Wátina” are sung in the Garífuna language accompanied by traditional percussion instruments. The sound of this album is decidedly more acoustic than the dance tunes of his previous releases, and includes Spanish and acoustic guitars. The title song “Wátina,” which means “I call out,” is a call for the preservation of the traditional culture and traditions of his people.
In January 2008 I was fortunate to spend one week in Andy Palacio’s native village of Barranco in southern Belize. I met his friends and relatives, and I briefly met Andy himself when he came to visit his village during a performance of traditional Garífuna music and dancing. Two weeks later, I learned of his sudden death while I was staying in a Garífuna community in Honduras. By that time I had met Garífuna people all along the Caribbean coast of Central America in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, and I had witnessed first-hand the gradual decline of Garífuna culture and the urgency of Andy Palacio’s message.
But “Wátina” is much more than an effort to raise awareness about the rich musical tradition of the Garífuna people. It is a highly accomplished testimony of the musical talent and vision of Andy Palacio. It not only contains traditional Garífuna rhythms and instruments, but also incorporates influences of other musical traditions around the world.
This fusion of influences and styles found on “Wátina” reflect one of the great characteristics of Garífuna culture—a unique adaptability and acceptance of outside cultural influences. Perhaps due to their own unique racial and cultural mix I have found the Garífuna people to be very adaptable and accepting of other cultures. Several Mayan families from Guatemala lived in Andy Palacio’s native village, and they were genuinely welcome in the community and treated with respect. Many Garífuna people I met spoke not only their native tongue, but also English and Spanish. But this adaptability and openness also carries its dangers. All along Central America’s Caribbean coast, I discovered that traditional Garífuna language and culture are slowly disappearing. My own experiences only confirm the urgency of cultural preservation which Andy Palacio promotes in “Wátina.” The album is essentially a deeply felt call to all Garífuna people scattered along the Caribbean coast in Central America—from Belize all the way to Nicaragua—to preserve their culture, language, and identity. At the same time, it is a great musical accomplishment, recommended for all world music enthusiasts.
You can view Wátina on YouTube, and visit other websites dedicated to this great musician.