Garifuna beats meld old and new Belize

Friday, June 22, 2007
For the Star-Ledger
An established star in his native Belize, Andy Palacio played the dance-floor-targeted style called "punta" rock. But several years ago, Palacio embarked on a project to explore the music of the Garifuna -- people descended from African slaves, who make up a minority population in several Central American countries.

He assembled a multi-generational group of musicians, eventually releasing an album of their work, "Watina," on Cumbancha Records. The album, released earlier this year, has already brought Palacio to a new level of esteem inside and outside Belize. British remixer Fatboy Slim flew to Belize to collaborate with Palacio and, in May, he was given the WOMEX award for raising consciousness about the Garifuna people and the disappearance of their culture.

Q. How would you describe the difference between "Watina" and your earlier work?

A. "Watina" is so much more of a human experience than the previous work we have done with punta rock, where we relied heavily on synthesizers and drum machines, and basically created the sound that is guaranteed to move you on the dance floor. "Watina" is directed at one's heart, mind and soul, but we cannot do it without utilizing the different beats and rhythms that we're accustomed to.

Q. What was the goal of the album?

A. A lot of it has to do with documenting the art form, for one, but even while doing so, to use the tradition as a foundation for modern creativity, to maintain that roots element and to demonstrate that there can be peaceful and creative coexistence between a 21st century album and traditional music that has been practiced for over 200 years.

Q. What has the reaction been to the album?

A. From our people, it has been completely overwhelming. There is huge support for the effort. There is a feeling of identifying with the movement, so to speak. We played one concert in Belize City, and it was an emotional experience for me to see the response -- in terms of number and in terms of participation -- relating to us onstage from that audience. There was a strong showing for the Garifuna community, as well as the non-Garifuna community in Belize, and the praise that we got and the reception we got was usually reserved for foreign visiting artists who are superstars in some foreign country. And here we were -- boys from home being lavished with this treatment. It was incredible.

The new audience came there for a different reason. They weren't there to shake their hips. They were there for a whole new dimension. There is a new consciousness surrounding this piece of work. It started at home, and it is being felt at home, in addition to the accolades and the wonderful audience we're playing for internationally.

Q. What are the traditional elements in the album?

A. Listen for the drums, the maracas and the voices. Those are the essential elements that are drawn from Garifuna music. The guitars are part of the new creativity that we are infusing the music. But those drums and maracas and voices, that language is what is really the fount of this music.

Q. What is the state of the Garifuna people?

A. Well, there is an unwavering sense of identity, but it is the level of retention of our elements of our culture that is really worrying....The challenges of urbanization and globalization are just too difficult to cope (with), without taking deliberate and systematic action.

Q. Was it your intention to bring attention to Garifuna culture?

A. Well, yes. However, that came really a bit after the fact. And my reaction was: "Hey, indeed, why not?" Because the album has presented us with a forum and we do have a story to tell. We have a culture to share on a much wider scale -- so, actually, we've been wanting to do this for a very long time. And now (what) we found appears to be the perfect medium at the perfect time.