Growing up in Belize, James Lovell heard the Garifuna language from his parents and his grandparents; he understood it but he didn’t speak it. He spoke the language of the streets, Belizean Creole. He didn’t think much about Garifuna until the day he heard the music of a local artist Pen Cayetano and his Turtleshell Band.
“I still remember the little house there and they would practice and you would hear music coming from number 5 Moho Street,” says Lovell.
Pen Cayetano sang in Garifuna. But this wasn’t the traditional music that Lovell had heard growing up; this was a new sound called Punta Rock. Cayetano was singing about everyday life in the town of Dangriga where Lovell lived. Lovell was hooked.
“He was singing about issues in Dangriga when it comes to be laid off of work,” says Lovell.
One day Cayetano was performing and as it started to rain, the singer then began to sing an impromptu song about the rain. “He’s saying, it’s raining, it’s raining right here in Belize,” says Lovell.
At 16, barely able to speak the language of his family, Lovell decided he was going to be musician like Cayetano who would sing in Garifuna.
“To do that I had to be able to speak it. I had to be able to sing in Garifuna.”
Lovell started to speak in Garifuna with his parents and others. He also began visiting a village called Hopkins where everyone spoke Garifuna. “I just had to make that conscious effort to speak it and I did that,” says Lovell.
The Garifuna people come from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. But no one speaks Garifuna there any more. No one has since the 18th century, when the Garifuna were exiled by the British to Honduras. The diaspora is now spread throughout Central America in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.
The Garifuna language has survived but over time, Spanish, English and several creoles have become more dominant. The pattern is familiar: parents speak in their native tongue. Kids answer back in the language of the adopted country.
Linguist Daniel Kaufman calls this process social coercion. “A society comes to a point where … the children think that it’s not the language of modernity anymore, it’s the language of the old people,” says Kaufman.
Last year Kaufman helped to found the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance, a collection of linguists, students, and language enthusiasts. The group has been doing academic work like analyzing the grammar of the rare Mexican language Amuzgo.
But Kaufman and his team have also been supporting rejuvenation projects inspired by people like Lovell. A linguist might study and describe every intricacy of a language, but to keep it alive people like Lovell are essential.
For a language to live “you can’t just restrict it to one domain,” says Kaufman. “It has to live … all over the place.” Including, for example, in Michael Jackson songs, translated into local languages. .
Kaufman is delighted that Lovell is translating popular English language songs into Garifuna. He’s also helping Lovell raise money for an after-school program to teach Garifuna to kids in Lovell’s Brooklyn neighborhood—kids who, like Lovell, came from Garifuna backgrounds but don’t speak the language.
Lesson one for these kids: the pre-school hit I Love You as sung by Barney, the giant purple dinosaur.
“I want to be known as the Garifuna artist … teaching the language to Garifuna and non-Garifuna,” says Lovell.
Lovell describes this as his “calling”. And there is an otherworldly look that comes over him when he’s singing. A slight smile that you can see in his eyes and radiates from the corners of his mouth—whether he’s singing Barney or a traditional Garifuna song.