By Jose Francisco Avila

The Garifuna communities, spread over Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, have kept alive their common language, oral traditions, music and dances. Although still practiced on various occasions, these are changing considerably, as the Garifuna language is less often spoken.

On May 18, 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the Garifuna language, music and dance as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

The safeguarding project focuses mainly in the preservation of the Garifuna language through language revitalization, lexical expansion programs and the promotion of teaching, learning and practicing. It will also develop an inventory of Garifuna art forms (such as songs, music, dances and related customs, etc.) and promote regional Garifuna festivals with a view to confronting the erosion of the Garifuna culture in the heart of modern day communities.

As a general objective, the project seeks to strengthen the capacities of the Garifuna communities in order to promote the safeguarding of its heritage.

Following are examples of various efforts towards achieving that objective.

The Garifuna for Children Colouring Book series by Garifuna American illustrator Isidra Sabio, featuring Garifuna-4-Children, a tri-lingual (Garifuna, Spanish, English) colouring book that teaches children of all ages the Garifuna language while having fun, and the Garifuna-4-Children Numbers, a tri-lingual (Garifuna, Spanish, and English) colouring book that teaches children of all ages the numbers from 1-10 in the Garifuna language while having fun.

Garüdia: Garifuna Trilingual Dictionary by Ruben Reyes. Twenty years in the making, the dictionary is the result of Mr Reyes’ research and the study of how the Garifuna language employs logical structures and real-world references to convey, process, and assign meaning, as well as to manage and resolve ambiguity. In addition to the trilingual (Garifuna, English, Spanish) translation of words, the dictionary features the Garifuna alphabet, vowels and numbers with their respective pronunciation, as well as accentuation rules and verb tenses. With its 430 pages, it represents the most comprehensive list of Garifuna words and the first to provide equivalent words in the three languages spoken by the Garifuna Diaspora, Garifuna, English and Spanish.

Tri-lingual (Garifuna-English-Spanish) Translation Dictionary Mobile App by Jorge Garifuna. The emergence of the mobile applications market is not only revolutionizing the software industry, it’s also having a profound impact on the way we access information. More and more of our interaction online occurs on mobile devices. Therefore, to meet this need, Jorge developed The Tri-lingual (Garifuna-English-Spanish) Translation Dictionary Mobile App. This unique reference provides an easy way for parents, children, students, professionals and the general public to learn and stay abreast of the Garifuna language, while contributing to [#%!] preservation!

Lila Garifuna by Garifuna Scholar Salvador Suazo. Thirty years in the making, this dictionary features approximately 10,600 words and has words in Garifuna and translates them into Spanish. The 772 pages volume is part of the great achievements towards the rescue, recovery and preservation of the Garifuna language in Honduras and the Central American territory where Garifunas reside. The Lila Garifuna Dictionary helps to strengthen the Bilingual Intercultural Education Program (EIB), which is promoted by the Secretariat of Public Education in schools in Afro-Honduran communities.

Garifuna Language Workbook by Dr Michele Annette Goldwasser and published by GAHFU, Inc. through its Clifford J. Palacio Garifuna Language and Culture Academy. The book tries to take into consideration the various levels of proficiency of potential students of the Garifuna Language.

Life and Times of Chatoyer aka Drama of King Shotaway -- The first known play by an African American playwright William Brown, written in 1823 and entitled “The Drama of King Shotaway” is the story of the exile of the Garifuna people from their homeland of St Vincent and the Grenadines to Honduras, Central America. Sidney Mejia has recreated the play as a tribute to the resilience of his people, the Garifuna/Kalipuna/Carib people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, the United States, Canada and England and their leader, legendary Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer (the national hero of St Vincent and the Grenadines.)

According to the candidature form for proclamation of masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, minor instruments like conch shells, cow bells, and the mouthorgan have long had a peripheral place in traditional Garifuna music, as there was always the need for improvisation and adaptability as our musicians strived to meet the musical needs of the community. What is perhaps ironic is that it was in responding to the need to improvise that the turtle shells found their way into Garifuna music in Pen Cayetano’s art studio at Moho Street in Dangriga in 1982 and it can be said that it was that happy accident that gave rise to the Turtle Shell Band and brought about the latest development in Garifuna music in the form of Punta Rock.

The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble is proof of the continued improvisation and represents the latest development in Garifuna music through a fusion of Garifuna, African, African American and European elements. This new, distinct musical art form is an inimitable, alluring fusion of Garifuna, African, African American and European elements, using Garifuna and contemporary instruments. The music is not only delightful, but traces and sustains the language, love and legacy of the Garifuna people.

This new music art form has a unique and distinct sound, due to the incorporation of the traditional Garifuna rhythms such as Punta, Paranda and Hungu hungu, etc. Afrigarifuna Jazz is jazz music interpreted from a Garifuna perspective. It uses Garifuna instruments such as the maracas, Garifuna Drums, turtle-shells, conch shells, the Garifuna language along with contemporary instruments to acquire the distinct sound.

Garifuna dance is just as varied as the types of songs and music. The relationship between song and dance types is so close that the dance and the songs associated with it are known by the same name. Thus, one can sing or dance punta, hungu hungu gunjei, wanaragua, paranda, sambai, chumba, etc. Adding to the variety of Garifuna dances, is the Gari-Slide, a line dance set to Andy Palacio' song Lidan Aba, authored and choreographed by choreographer Mariano Martinez.

The Gari-Slide is the latest improvisation in Garifuna dance and represents the latest development in Garifuna dance. It is a line dance, which is a choreographed dance with a repeated sequence of steps in which a group of people dance in one or more lines or rows without regard for the gender of the individuals, all facing the same direction, and executing the steps at the same time. Line dancers are not in physical contact with each other. Think the Garifuna version of the “Electric Slide”!

According to the candidature form for proclamation of masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, “If conscious intervention is not done all aspects of the culture could be lost very quickly. Humanity would suffer a significant loss if that were to occur, bearing in mind that Garifuna culture, including the language, music and dance, is a rare amalgam or synthesis of Amerindian and African elements fused together in the crucible of the Caribbean.”

The examples listed above demonstrate that the Garifunas are confronting the erosion of the Garifuna culture in the heart of modern day communities and the general objective of the safeguarding project is being achieved, while the capacities of the Garifuna communities have been strengthened in order to promote the safeguarding of its heritage.

Caribbean News Now