A narrow spit of land arcs into the Caribbean off the coast of Honduras, where a dark-watered river flows into the sea. There, in a small village without electricity, Garifuna songwriter, singer, and guitarist Aurelio Martinez first learned music at his mother's knee.
At the end of the day, villagers would return in their boats to the river landing, setting aside work and relaxing for the evening. They would gather to hear paranda, the guitar-driven music of Garifuna troubadours, who teased and taught, bemoaned and praised community life. Aurelio joined musical gatherings from a tender age, set atop a table by his uncles.
A prodigy of percussion, Aurelio began performing at Garifuna ceremonies when just a boy, even at the most sacred events where children were usually not allowed. By the time he left Plaplaya to attend school at 14, he was a respected musician with a firm grounding in Garifuna rhythms, rituals, and songs. Aurelio explored diverse and innovative musical projects that took him outside the traditional sphere of performance. He played professionally with popular Latin ensembles, wrote music for theater and pop groups, and refined his musical skills with private teachers. He soon founded a Garifuna ensemble, Lita Ariran, one of the first Garifuna groups to appear on an internationally distributed recording. Aurelio's virtuosic musicianship and passionate performances made him a mainstay of the La Cieba music scene, where he was best loved for his take on punta rock, the high-energy, Garifuna roots-infused pop genre that took Central America by storm in the 1990s.
Aurelio's musical career took a global turn thanks to his Belizean friend and fellow musician, the late Andy Palacio. The two artists struck up a decades-long friendship thanks in part to their shared hopes for the future of Garifuna music and culture. Palacio, who passed away suddenly in 2008, can be credited with transforming the music of the Garifuna from local curiosity to global icon.
Aurelio toured the world, performing his own music and paying tribute to Palacio. Thanks to the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Aurelio spent time with Senegalese Afropop great Youssou N'Dour.
These worldly experiences led him back to the black river, the beach, and his people. "All the travel made me realize that my real strength as an artist, our real strength as a culture lies in Garifuna communities, in my home village," reflects Aurelio. "The more I have traveled and seen the world, the more need I have felt to come back and to reconnect with my roots."
These roots have great capacity for absorbing and transforming outside sounds and ideas. The very origins of the Garifuna lie in a tragic tale of mixing, of cultures that hybridized to adapt and survive. According to Garifuna oral history, the 17th-century wreck of a slave ship brought Africans to the island of St. Vincent, where they intermarried with the indigenous Kalínago and learned their language. Their descendants were forcibly deported to the Central American coast in the 18th century by British colonials. Along the way, the Garifuna absorbed French, English, and Spanish terms as well as a plethora of diverse sounds and customs.
"It's very common in Garifuna culture to incorporate the things that have surrounded us, all the different cultural contacts," notes Aurelio. "They have had an influence on Garifuna cultural development over the years."
Though it incorporates elements from a wide variety of sources, Garifuna music's heart beats with very personal, deceptively simple tales. Aurelio credits his mother Maria, who dreamed of being a professional singer, with introducing him to the basics of Garifuna songcraft. Like many Garifuna, she composed her own songs based on community events and her personal experience. She would teach the verse and chorus of the songs to her son, who would then go on to build on the tale by adding another verse, in traditional Garifuna style.
A consummate singer, percussionist, and guitarist, Aurelio's passion flows not only from his love of music, but also from his commitment to the cause of raising awareness and appreciation for Garifuna music and culture, both at home in Garifuna communities and internationally. At first, he attempted to pursue this goal not only via his music career, but by serving as a representative to the Honduran legislature, one of the first persons of African heritage to do so. In 2008, Aurelio set aside this role when Andy Palacio died, in part due to growing frustration with the pace of progress, and to his doubts about how effectively an artist can work inside government institutions.
"It's an uphill battle," muses Ivan Duran, Aurelio's producer who hails from Belize and has dedicated most of his professional life to working with Garifuna artists. "Even though we all have a lot of strength left, especially Aurelio, sometimes you don't know how much longer you can carry this burden. The whole community is depending on artists and spokesmen like Aurelio to deliver this music and message. Aurelio is the chosen one as an individual artist. It's a big responsibility."
Aurelio may be frustrated by the way things stand now, but he is not about to give up. "We don't have the right allies in our own countries who will be our true partners on this journey," he states. "When we started this process with the first album dedicated to paranda in 1998, this music was completely unknown. The fact that we're here, touring the world, and that a lot of people know about us makes us feel good. I want this to continue, for more artists to join me and keep this music alive. I want my children and grandchildren to take this music higher, to propel it beyond where we are now."