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, who had served in Honduras’ national assembly as one of the first congressmen of African descent, left politics to return to music, subsequently touring 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. The more I have traveled and seen the world, the more need I have felt to come back and to reconnect with my roots." Aurelio

Further reading

Aurelio Martinez: Bearer of the Garifuna Tradition

An introduction to the Honduran musician on the release of his second album.

Lándini: Track by Track

Dig deeper into the themes and inspiration behind the Honduran singer and musician's third album.

On the road with Honduran musician Aurelio Martinez

American journalist Marlon Bishop embarks on a cultural journey with Aurelio Martinez, the finest ex...