By Ann Oleinik
Edited by Naturalight Productions
When I tell friends and family that I came to Belize to learn about Garifuna music, I prepare myself to answer a lot of questions. People want to know what Garifuna music is like and where it came from, and especially if "authentic" Garifuna music still exists, or if it is a dying tradition. I understand why people ask these questions; but they are not so easy to answer.
Many people believe that authentic culture means culture that is untouched by outside influences. This makes visiting Belize confusing for them, because it is unique but also in constant dialog with its Caribbean, Central American, and North American neighbors. Garifuna culture is especially confusing because of its historical identity as a cultural mixture of African and Amerindian influences as well as the additional "mixing" that has been occurring since the Garinagu first arrived in Central America in the 18th Century. So what, then, defines authentic Garifuna music? Let me share with you some stops along my path to answering this question.
Saturday night I found myself in the living room of a clapboard house in the village of Barranco. Thunder boomed and rain crashed against the house, but inside the slow paced, soulful, guitar-accompanied paranda music played to the warmth of an anniversary celebration. Down here in the far south of Belize, wrapped in the embrace of rolling mountains, the songs of the forest are more often interrupted by music than traffic. The small group gathered for this particular celebration talked and laughed in Garifuna, sung along with the music, and danced together in the living room. I, too, danced, grateful for the smiles that made even the unfamiliar surroundings and language feel comfortable.
Despite the presence of the cd player, this is the kind of musical gathering that has been going on for ages, where people just get together to have a good time and strengthen community bonds through common musical experience. Until recently most of the Garifuna people in Belize lived in small villages, where everybody knew their neighbors, and their community was composed of people that they knew personally. In fact, living in the village depended upon the cooperation of the community just to survive. Musical occasions like this might not meet obvious needs like providing food for the community, but they do create and reinforce the community bonds that are a part of village life.
On Friday night I attended a Supa G punta rock concert in Dangriga. A stage was erected on a local basketball court, where the band set up its drum machine, keyboard, electric guitar, Garifuna drum, and backup singers. This music is the result of adding pop music instruments to Garifuna punta music, and is a fun, driving music popular with young people all over Belize and Central America. On stage, the polite articulate man I had met the day before - Supa G himself - was transformed into a commanding performer with a booming voice and gyrating hips. It was hard to believe it was the same person!
The highlight of the evening was the punta dance contest. The Dangriga champion tore off his shirt to reveal a heavily-muscled chest and the ability to move his hips seemingly independently of the rest of his body. He danced around the stage, often displacing the musicians and challenging the audience to question his status.
Finally another man accepted and the contest began. The challenger went first and danced wildly, first upright, then on the ground, jumped backwards off the stage, got back up, danced around, and almost fell off the stage head-first but for the drummer who caught his legs. Our hearts stopped and the crowd cheered wildly. The reigning champ's studied and dedicated punta couldn't compete with the challenger's insanity. In the contest, decided by the audience's cheering, the challenger won, and the champ left angry.
Sometimes foreigners point to punta rock to argue that Garifuna music is degenerating, saying that the addition of electric instruments makes it less authentic. Others point to it as a uniquely Belizean or uniquely Garifuna musical style that draws together a community that is spread out around Belize and abroad. It makes a community out of people who may not see each other every day, but who identify with this music and the people that it represents. For good or for bad, it meets the needs of a people who are being forced to make a place for themselves as a nation and as an ethnic group within a world where larger countries have a greater ability to assert themselves. For me, attending this concert was an experience that I will never forget; it remains in my mind as one of the things that distinctly characterizes Dangriga.
Monday morning dawned bright and hot. I, dressed in my custom-made Garifuna costume with a bright green checkered skirt, began to sweat even as I walked to the temple at 6:45 am. The dügü is a Garifuna healing ceremony in which an entire extended family comes together to heal social rifts and the physical ailments they cause. The ancestors want the family to be strong and relationships to be healthy, and so will demand a dügü by causing an individual to become physically ill when they see problems between family members. The dügü overtly heals the sick individual, but on a deeper level it heals the family.
When I arrived, the temple was full of dancers and the orange light of the morning sun shone through slats in the walls and reflected off the smoke from the kitchen's fire. Bodies were moving, voices were singing, and soon even I was dancing, pulled into the crowd by a woman in a blue outfit. In time the spirits joined us. A few women near me went limp, needing someone to hold them while they continued dancing in their shuffle step. And then suddenly their bodies would come to life, their behavior now that of a deceased family member who had come to join in the dancing and festivities. These activities go on for about three days, night and day, and the goal is that in the end, the spirits of the ancestors will be satisfied that the ceremony has brought the family together.
It wasn't until I attended the dügü that I finally understood that when people talk about preserving Garifuna culture, they mean preserving the sense of community that they remember growing up in villages. This community means that when one person is sick, the entire community commits to healing them. It means dancing, singing, and working together, and remaining a community even when many family members have migrated. This sense of community is behind every form of Garifuna music, from the dügü to punta rock. In a world where the American media threatens to bring American culture everywhere, this knowledge provides the possibility of an alternative way of life, of a different way of understanding the world. It is the possibility of having a close-knit community within a modern world.
All three of these experiences create and represent different experiences of the Garifuna community. Which one of these is most authentic? Perhaps the better question is how are these experiences differently authentic and what can we learn from them?
Thank you to everybody in Belize who has taught me about the beauty of Garifuna community.
Special Thanks to:
Pelican Beach Resort
Images Courtesy of: