8 mins

Aurelio: 5 things you need to know about Garifuna music

Honduras singer Aurelio’s guide to everything you need to know about the stories, drums and soul of Garifuna music and a fast-disappearing culture

Aurelio (York Tillyer)

1: Garifuna songs are our history books 

Garifuna music is handed down from generation to generation (Graeme Green)

We tell our stories in songs. Our songs are our history books. When we have a problem with someone in the community, we often prefer to write about him or her, rather than to fight with them.

When disaster strikes, our songs become our journals. We remember hurricanes, tragedies at sea or important people because our songwriters and performers have passed these stories from generation to generation. 

Whether they are songs about marital affairs, poking fun at someone or marking an important community event, our songs are often first person accounts, which I believe contributes to the fact that people relate to them in such a strong way.

I want young Garifuna people to hear the problems they are living with reflected in my songs, and dance with those same problems. I try to address issues like safe sex, or problems relating to migration to the United States. I hope that the children who aren’t learning to speak the Garifuna language will be inspired by my music at least to sing it.


2: Garifuna drums are the heart and soul of our music 

Garifuna drummers (Dreamstime)

Without our drums, our music would never feel complete. Our music is the backbone of our culture and through the drums we maintain a spiritual link with our ancestors. Just as family is of supreme importance to us, worship of our ancestors is a vital element of the Garifuna religion.

We have many rhythms and each one serves a specific function and has dances that go with them.  The most popular ones are Punta (a human fertility dance) and Paranda. There are other lesser-known festive rhythms, like Hungu Hungu and Gungei. The sacred Dugu rhythm is one of the most important traditional ceremonies, involving communication with the spirit world through singing and dancing, with the goal of healing the living through veneration of the dead.


3: Garifuna language, music and dance is a UNESCO Heritage Masterpiece

Roatan, Honduras (Dreamstime)

In 2001, Garifuna language, music and dance was officially proclaimed by UNESCO a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” This is perhaps the biggest recognition and reaffirmation of our people and culture who suffered near extermination and centuries of discrimination. Against the odds, we’ve managed to survive and thrive in today’s world. 

We Garifuna have a story unlike any other in the Americas. We descend from a mix of escaped African slaves, shipwrecked off the coast of St Vincent, and the indigenous Arawak people that once lived on islands of the Caribbean. But the British claimed the island, and after fierce resistance the Garifuna were imprisoned on the tiny island of Balliceaux, and then in 1797 exiled to Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.

Today, the Garifuna live in along the Caribbean coast of Central America, from Belize down through Guatemala and Honduras, all the way to Nicaragua. Many of us have migrated to the US. We are bound together by our strong culture of language, music and dance.

It’s a beautiful culture but we’re in danger of losing it. I want to use my music to preserve Garifuna culture. The next generation isn’t learning the Garifuna language. In the schoolbooks, there’s not one word about the role of the Garifuna. How are our children supposed to learn their history?


4: Garifuna music is hard to pin down

Young Aurelio playing guitar (Dreamstime)

Our music lives in a constant state of evolution but our traditional core rhythms are always present. Many people, even expert music critics, find it hard to pinpoint our music. What are its origins? Is it African? Is it Spanish? 

Our ancestors took African beats and mixed them seamlessly with Caribbean Amerindian melodies. They incorporated the guitar and other Spanish elements after their arrival in Honduras, and created modern Punta Rock by introducing with electric guitars and keyboards.

Our music is our pride. It is the result of the collective expression of our people over hundreds of years.

My father migrated from Honduras to New York City when I was very young. He worked as a labourer, but like all Garifuna, his true passion was music, and he would send back cassettes of his music to us in my hometown of Plaplaya. I learned my first chords studying those cassettes on a makeshift guitar that I built myself.


5: Our music can uplift the soul and make you dance at the same time

Garifuna woman dancing (Dreamstime)

No matter what we are singing about, a Garifuna artist will always find a way to make you dance and make you forget all your problems. Our music is almost therapeutic in the sense that is has contributed immensely to keeping us together as a community through good and bad times. 

For example, at the Garifuna women’s social clubs (Fedu) which bring the community together for evenings of singing and dancing, the women control everything. The leaders of these social clubs have more followers and carry more weight in the community that any politician could ever dream of.


Aurelio’s new album Darandi: celebrating 30 years at the heart of Garifuna music is out now on Real World Records. He'll be touring the UK from Jan 31 to Feb 03, with other live dates in the USA, Spain, France and Slovenia. For more, see www.aureliomusic.net

Main image: Aurelio (York Tillyer)

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