Feiridiwanali ei Gumugubei Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Revolution

The important role Palacio played in placing Garifuna culture on the world stage was on par with the pan-African legacies of musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.

When I was younger, my father, kept a copy of Belizean musician, Andy Palacios 2007 record breaking album, Wátina, in the glove compartment of our family’s Mazda. My father had immigrated from Belize to the US just before Belize’s independence from Great Britain in 1981 and he played this CD often for me. My favourite songs on the album were Wátina, Beiba, and Ámuñegü. The album was not the typical Latin-influenced music of the Central American region, but a distinct afro-beat with lyrics not in Spanish nor English, but in Garifuna—an old blend of indigenous African and Ameri-indigenous languages.

As I grew up, this album faded from my memory. No less than a decade later, as I found myself immersed in the study of global Black history, this album re-emerged back in my consciousness—and, surprisingly, it was available across all digital music media platforms. For me, it meant that this man, from one small corner of the tiny country which people have struggled to identify on a map my whole life, was significant enough to be heard across the globe.  

Palacio was an artist who spent his career and life unearthing and reenergizing Garifuna culture across Central America. Born on December 2, 1960, in Barranco, a Garifuna community on the southern Caribbean coast of Belize, he was immersed in traditional Garifuna culture, including language, spirituality and, of course, music. Though he always felt destined to be a musician, he spent much of his teenage and young adult life ambivalently pursuing a career teaching English and literature––a typical career for a well-to-do Garifuna. He did not know then how that experience would later propel his fateful career as an internationally recognized musician and purveyor of Garifuna culture. 

THE GARIFUNA LAND IN CENTRAL AMERICA

The Garifuna people have a deep history of resistance against European forces who sought to dominate them. A key part of their history began when Spanish ships carrying enslaved persons from what is now Nigeria wrecked off the coast of St. Vincent in 1635. The enslaved passengers thus escaped, free to intermix with the indigenous Arawak peoples as well as Maroons––formerly enslaved Africans who escaped to fight to maintain their own freedom. Belizean historian, Assad Shoman, has pointed out that the Garifuna held resistance against Spanish and later British forces over 100 years before their fateful deportation to the coast of Central America beginning in 1797.  

The Garifuna and their culture flourished as they settled in what is now Honduras and Nicaragua, finally reaching Belize on November 19, 1802—a day now celebrated as Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize. Similar to their Caribbean neighbours, Haiti, Cuba and Brazil (which were major recipients of enslaved West Africans), the Garifuna practice a blend of Vodun, Ameri-indigenous Arawak polytheistic practices called Zemism, and Catholicism. Thus, across these Caribbean nations, the sounds of Africa can be heard in distinct yet fluid manifestations.  

PALACIO IN REVOLUTIONARY NICARAGUA

In 1980, during his master’s degree at Belize Teacher’s College, Palacio along with around 22 other Belizean students were appointed by the Belizean government to support Nicaragua’s national literacy campaign administered by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. Upon receiving training and informational workshops on the demographics of the coast, Palacio was informed that there were Garifuna communities there, and he immediately asked to be placed in the communities of Orinoco and Bluefields. History professor, Matilde Zimmermann, has noted that while in 1969, the FSLN presented their aspiration to ‘encourage the flourishing’ of the Atlantic coast’s ‘local cultural values, which flow from the specific aspects of its historic tradition,’ ‘the relationship between ethnic identity and revolutionary politics was much more complicated than the FSLN understood before 1979.’ 

Palacio once recalled how the FSLN government had little command in differentiating between the Black creole and Garifuna communities that dominated the coast. It was in the villages of Orinoco and Bluefields that he was taken aback by the level of decay of the culture, whereas in Barranco he observed the culture was alive and well. Palacio also recounted that in the village of Orinoco, there were only three elderly women around the age of 70 who held Garifuna as their first language. Palacio who at the time was no older than 20 lamented that no one under the age of 50 was able to hold a conversation in Garifuna. 

While travelling north on Pearl Lagoon from Bluefields to Orinoco, Palacio’s group was diverted midway at Brown Bank by a storm. On this overnight stay, he was told ‘there was a Carib man here like you, maybe you can talk Carib to him, and he will understand.’ Palacio recounts the story of being invited into the elderly man’s house lit by a fire lamp.   

‘Ida biangi iawuriti?’ or, ‘How are you, my uncle?’ Palacio said to the man whose eyes lit up.  

‘Are you telling me the truth?!’ The man exclaimed in Garifuna, embracing Palacio in disbelief.  

Palacio discussed how it was an ‘emotional experience’ for both of them. For him, the experience of meeting the elder and seeing the ‘level of decay’ of the culture in Orinoco ‘brought home what to [him] seemed like the future of Garifuna culture in Belize.’ It was in these moments on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast that he decided that he would ‘dedicate all [his] efforts, [his] whole life to make sure this does not happen to [the Garifuna] in Belize.’ 

After six months in Nicaragua, Palacio wanted to continue his work in Orinoco and Bluefields but was unable to due to the intensification of the Contra Wars, an attempt by the United States to overthrow the FSLN government. However, contrary to the indigenous and creole communities on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, some of whom fought on the side of the US, the Garifuna communities became committed members or at least supporters of the FSLN after Palacio and his cohort’s visit. In 1986, the Garifuna community of Orinoco progressed exponentially and went on to be included in FSLN’s ‘autonomy pilot project’, which gave indigenous and creole communities on the Atlantic Coast definitive geo-political rights. 

PALACIO FINDS HIS BEAT

During Palacio’s time in Nicaragua, Belize itself was on the verge of independence from Great Britain, long time opponents of Garifuna freedom since their battles in St. Vincent. This inspiration combined with his experiences in Nicaragua and the sounds of revolutionary reggae artists of the 80s were integral to the crystallization of Palacio’s political consciousness. He recalled that songs like Bob Marley’s ‘Zimbabwe’ and Peter Tosh’s ‘Equal Rights’ were getting to him as he was developing a ‘revolutionary zeal.’ Returning to Belize, Palacio wrote and completed his master’s thesis in 1982 on ‘implementing the literacy methods’ of the revolutionary Brazilian educator and political thinker, Paulo Freire, ‘within a classroom setting.’ In 1987, he was invited as a working artist by Cultural Partnerships Limited, a community arts organization based in England. 

At the same time, having never given up on his dream of becoming a musician, Palacio was inspired by the emerging Belizean Turtle Shell Band formed by Pen Cayetano, a musician that drew on Garifuna culture to pioneer the famous Belizean ‘Punta Rock’ Afro-beat sound. Punta Rock gains its name from ‘Punta Gorda’, the neighbouring city to Barranco with its own lively Garifuna community. In Garifuna culture and thus Punta Rock, the drums are central instruments. Music in general, but drumming in particular, is an integral part of the Yoruba ceremonies commonly known to present-day Nigeria, and this followed the Garifuna to the Atlantic world. A dual system similar to the Yoruba, the Garifuna use the Primero drum, a smaller drum used for high pitch sound, and the Segundo a bigger drum used for heavy bass sound. Pen Cayetano is credited with introducing the turtle shell into Punta Rock, which Palacio later integrated throughout his own music.  

Though Palacio struggled with pursuing music while in his teaching career, he gained a glimpse of success when his songs ‘Bikini Panty’ and ‘Gimme Punta Rock’ gained lives of their own in the country later in the decade. In the mid-90s Palacio met Belizean producer, Ivan Duran, and in 1995 produced Keimoun, a moderately successful album that expanded past Belize’s borders. In 1999, a turning point for Palacio, he was featured on Belizean Garifuna elder musician, Paul Nabor’s album Paranda: Africa in Central America, also produced by Duran and Stonetree Music. Paranda itself was an earlier form of Garifuna music that predated both Pen Cayetano and Palacio. Nabor’s album brought together chief Garifuna musicians across Central America, and thus elevated Palacio’s cultural and political position exponentially within the Garifuna community, but also within wider Belize. In 2003, Palacio was appointed director of culture at the Belize Arts Council and in 2004 he was appointed as the cultural ambassador and deputy administrator of the National Institute of Culture and History of Belize. 

As his political and musical trajectory converged over his love for his Garifuna people, Palacio began using his English and literature background to compose songs that discussed issues surrounding Garifuna preservation in Central America and Belizean independence. In his observations Palacio noted that, ‘decisions that affect small countries weren’t necessarily being made [in those small countries].’ ‘That in many cases’, Palacio continued, ‘we were being tossed around on this global sea of turbulence and…powerful governments will make puppets out of small states.’ Palacio asserted that he ‘had no love for colonialism…no love for subjugation of other people’s cultures and the imposition of a superior culture over people because they have less military might.’ Looking toward to the future he felt that ‘people who had enriched themselves through the colonial process had no right to continue to impose their will on the less fortunate,’ and thus, he wanted to see ‘colonialism ended,’ ‘equitable distribution of wealth,’ and ‘to become a ‘proud citizen [of Belize] and not a British subject.’ 

Though the crux of his musical career began in the late 90s, Palacio truly burst onto the international scene with his seminal 2007 album, Wátina. He brought together Garifuna musicians across Central America, including Nabor (d. 2014), the beloved Belizean Garifuna elder who outlived even Palacio, to produce this critical synthesis of Afro-beat and Garifuna culture. Palacio along with Duran, were given the 2007 WOMEX Award for the album, and Palacio himself was named the UNESCO Artist for Peace just before his death in January 2008 at the age of 48. 

IN TIMES TO COME 

Wátina closes out with ‘Ámuñegü’, or ‘In Times to Come’ and in the song, Palacio laments: ‘Kaba funa san ayanuha Garifuna numa amunegu?’, ‘who will speak Garifuna with me in times to come?’ The link between the Garifuna and present-day Nigeria is also elucidated, ‘Kaba funa san anuga wabute amunegu?’ or ‘who will bake cassava bread with me in times to come?’ Just as Europeans were bringing African goods and knowledge across the Atlantic, they were also bringing Ameri-indigenous productions into Africa and the across the Caribbean. History professor, Obi Iwuagwu, writes that cassava, thought to be primarily originated in the Americas, was brought by way of the Portuguese into West Africa in the second half of the 16th century. It has now become a key staple in both Garifuna and Nigerian societies, pointing to the complicated synchronicities and migrations of Africans across and within the Atlantic. Though Palacio laments the apparent loss of Garifuna history and culture, embedded in his words is also hope-filled mission, ‘chuluhali dan lun lareidahoun, chuluhali dan lun harufudaha houn,’ ‘the time has come for it to be preserved, the time has come for it to be taught.’ The song itself ends with a repetitious call and response, fading out with the voices of children who sing along: ‘Feiridiwanali ei: gumugubei’––‘Lest we lose it: altogether.’ 

Wátina was a culmination of his experiences in education, politics, and music, and he thus inserted himself in the pantheon of Black artists of the era that were calling for Black liberation and cultural revolution. The important role Palacio played in placing Garifuna culture on the world stage was on par with Jamaican Bob Marley’s role in making Rastafari culture of world interest and Nigerian Fela Kuti’s role in uniting the African continent culturally and politically. 

In many documents regarding his role in Nicaragua, Palacio’s role is often anonymized as a ‘Belizean Garifuna volunteer’. But this starting point in the role Palacio was to play in music and politics was much more critical from the point of view of the Garifuna people across Central America and the African diaspora more broadly. In one 2002 interview, a Nicaraguan Garifuna elder recalls that for at least 50 years before the intervention by the FSLN and Palacio, the Garifuna people on the coast ‘didn’t know what [we] were’. Palacio and the FSLN, he continued, ‘[visited] the communities and helped us to recognize that we are Garifunas,’ and ‘now, actually you can enjoy, you can see the expression, the different dancing, the drumming, the conch shell, and different things around us…’ In other words, without Palacio’s intervention, the obscurity of the Garifuna culture would have remained and worsened, and the development of land in accordance with Garifuna customs would not have been a new nationalist prospect which the Garifuna peoples across Central America rallied around.  

 ‘The Nicaragua experience, Palacio recalled, changed his mind about what kind of music he wanted to make: ‘I want to do something that will reflect my commitment to the survival of my culture and creating a Belizean identity.’ Out of this Nicaragua experience, the political awakening of Belizean independence, and ideological and cultural influences from other Afro-diasporic music such as Reggae, Funk legends like Kool and the Gang, and emerging Hip-Hop giants like Sugar Hill Gang, came the reinvigoration of Garifuna culture, manifested through Palacio’s Afro-beat. Out of Palacio’s activism and performances all over the world, including at the famous New York City venue, Sounds of Brazil or ‘SOB’s’, Garifuna Afro-beat was heard around the globe. Perhaps more importantly, in communities of Garifuna people throughout Central America, cultural pride in their West African heritage reverberated again.  

I did not know as a child what Palacio’s legacy would mean to both my personal and professional life. As I relistened to his last album as an adult, I discovered a beautiful synchronicity between my life’s work and his final song ‘Ámuñegü’. Just as that song fades out with the voices of children singing ‘lest we lose it altogether,’ I was raised with his voice as a child and continue his work by bringing Garifuna and Belizean history to the public. In a short post-humous documentary on Palacio’s life, Peter Ciego, former director of the Garifuna Museum in Belize, sums up my sentiment best: ‘we believe Andy has completed his mission, and his mission was to put the Garifuna music on the world map.’ Ciego continues, ‘in my opinion, Andy will not rest in peace—in the sense that we will always be talking about him, so we will not allow him to go aside and take his rest.’

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