Aurelio Martinez: Bearer of the Garifuna Tradition

After a shipwreck crossing the dreaded Middle Passage from West Africa, the human cargo wound up on the island now known as St. Vincent, where they intermingled with local residents, the Callinago who themselves were a mixture of Arawak and Carib groups. The resulting hybrid group known as the Garifuna fought British colonizers and were eventually deported en masse, deposited on the Caribbean coast of Central America and left for dead, as young Garifuna musician Aurelio Martinez recounts in his song “Yurumei,” the Garifuna name for St. Vincent.

A Shipwreck, A Fight, A People

The Garifuna survived and incorporated Latin elements—from the guitar to Catholicism—into their evolving culture. Now numbering more than half a million, small communities of Garifuna dot the coast from Belize to Nicaragua.  Many Garifuna have migrated to the United States while some have returned to St. Vincent itself.

In Aurelio Martinez’s world, ocean currents flow from Africa past and present, from that long-ago shipwreck and lost island sanctuary, to a world now embracing the threatened sounds of his deeply creative people.


Tradition Bearer of the Garifuna

With the sea as his constant companion, Aurelio makes music that spans tragic history and soulful ceremonies.  Music sparked by his childhood in an isolated coastal hamlet and channeled to honor his late friend and mentor, Garifuna musical icon, Andy Palacio. Aurelio is the tradition bearer for a unique culture of African, Caribbean Indian, and Latin influences, but also a thoroughly modern artist determined to break new ground for his centuries-old roots.

Aurelio came to love these roots at a very tender age, growing up in the tiny Honduran village of Plaplaya, far off the beaten track. He began learning sacred drumming from his relatives and performing at important adults-only religious ceremonies at the age of six. Encouraged by a songwriting mother blessed with a gorgeous voice, and by his widely admired troubadour father, young Aurelio made his own guitars from cans, sticks  and fishing line.  Music and song were the only entertainment available in a place with no electricity and little contact with the outside world.

The songs he encountered in youth shaped him as an artist and inspired many of the pieces on Laru Beya.  Garifuna people call a song their own not only when they have written it, but when the song has been written for them or when they have sung it with enough heart to feel it as their own. Aurelio has made these songs his own.

Songs tell simple stories but aim to touch something universal that singer and listener can share. Through their telling, even the most tragic events are rendered in a celebratory light.

A young Aurelio, from his family photo album

Family Roots

Aurelio’s father was an expert in paranda music.  A street-friendly, Latin-inflected style, paranda songs chronicle everything from social ills to humorous tales to aching love.  All in a highly improvisatory and soulful mode.  Aurelio  has retained this musical flexibility, and in the sessions that became Laru Beya, he revealed his tireless, playful love of making music on the fly—sometimes for hours at a time—lying in a hammock with his guitar, inventing songs late into the night.

While Aurelio has the gift of spontaneous creation, his compositions are solidly rooted in the traditions he grew up with.  At the heart of every song on Laru Beya beats a traditional Garifuna rhythm, and not just the most widely known popularized rhythms of punta (“Ereba”) or paranda (“Ineweyu”) that are most familiar to fans of Central American music.   Exploring other traditional beats, Aurelio uses the rarely recorded rhythms such as the semi-sacred hüngü -hüngü  or the African-inflected gunchéi, rhythm, usually connected with women’s singing. To deepen the sad tale of migration to the U.S., ”Tio Sam,” for example, Martinez concluded the song with part of a traditional female song set to the gunchéi, beat, sung by a chorus of Garifuna women.

Many of the songs on Laru Beya draw on traditional refrains and phrases; little pieces of old melodies that suggested something new and intriguing to Aurelio and his long-time friend, producer, and musical collaborator Ivan Duran who was intimately involved in the album’s distinctive arrangements. Duran is the much celebrated music producer from Belize behind the international rise of Central American Garifuna music.

The pair also drew on family heirlooms, including songs Aurelio’s mother had written, such as the moving “Nuwaruguma,” about a mother’s star watching over her son. During recording Aurelio couldn’t recall all the lyrics and called his mother, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. After giving him the missing words, she chided him for not inviting her to sing with him, an omission he corrected when she late came to visit him in Honduras.

Aurelio in Corozal village, Honduras. Photo credit: Sarah Weeden

A Lost Icon

However, beyond the beauties of Garifuna tradition, and Aurelio’s striking interpretations, lie the true guiding force behind the album: the loss of one of the Garifunas’ most eloquent and musically talented spokespeople, Andy Palacio.

Palacio, who passed away suddenly in 2008, can be credited with transforming the music of the Garifuna from local curiosity to global icon.  He first earned regional popularity as the powerhouse behind Punta Rock, a Garifuna-rock synthesis that broke onto the Central American scene in the early 1990s. Then in 2007 came his groundbreaking, chart-climbing, international award-winning album, Wátina (Cumbancha/Stonetree Records), also produced and co-arranged by Duran.  Aurelio contributed two formidable vocal performances on Wátina, a recording that truly put Garifuna music on the map and garnered Palacio global acclaim.

Andy Palacio and Aurelio in La Ceiba circa 1999.
“The last time I was with Andy in Belize, he took me many places, like he had never done before. Every Garifuna community where we went, he would ask me to speak to the youth and sing Garifuna songs to them,” Martinez remembers. “He also promised he would take me to his village of Barranco but we never got there. I was surprised by the humble way in which he lived. But at the same time he was very sophisticated.” Aurelio Martinez

On the road with Honduran musician Aurelio Martinez

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


New Traditions Emerge On the Beach

A mere month after Andy’s death, Aurelio, Duran, and the talented Garifuna musicians who joined them on Laru Beya headed for a small fishing village in Honduras, where they set up a studio in a beachfront house. Here they were often joined by local singers and dancers, like the chorus of village women who stopped by to add their voices to the title track, “Laru Beya”.  Recording and living by the sea for several weeks, they were still in grief and shock, yet they knew they had to do something amazing to honor Palacio’s life and work.

Palacio’s impact was arguably greatest in his native land of Belize and in the surrounding Garifuna communities of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. His music, life, and friendship inspired a new generation of Garifuna artists. “When we talked,” Aurelio explains, “we often discussed the rescue and preservation of the Garifuna culture and how to inspire the new generation to be proud of being Garifuna. He had such a clear vision and we shared the same passion.”

Musicians such as Aurelio have been able to forge an innovative approach to Garifuna sounds thanks to Palacio’s willingness to try new arrangements, while keeping true to Garifuna tradition.  New instrumentation is now added to the drums and vocals characteristic of traditional Garifuna music.

“When Aurelio and I were talking about how to approach the arrangements for the album, we became convinced that it had to be forward looking and tear down all the barriers,” Duran reflects. “Andy allowed Garifuna artists to break free and be as creative as they wanted, free to go in any direction they wished. They don’t have to be totally true to their roots, because Andy’s work was very far from traditional music, but still clearly Garifuna.”

One moment that highlights the potency of this approach came when Aurelio and Duran struggled to craft a fitting tribute in song for Palacio. After weeks of fiddling around unsuccessfully with different chords and words, Aurelio began singing a highly spiritual song that is usually only performed in the context of the extremely sacred Garifuna ritual of Dügü (a funerary rite that honors ancestral spirits and brings them into the present). Not generally recorded, Aurelio felt it was appropriate to use this music to honor Andy, who in Martinez’s rendition (“Wamada”) is imagined relaxing in heaven in his hammock. “Aurelio did only one take, and it was inspired,” Duran recalls. “Everyone in the studio was dumbfounded. Something truly magical happened.”

Day one in the studio, San Juan Village, Honduras. Photo credit: Katia Paradis.

A New Mentor in Africa

One direction that had always fascinated Palacio, one that he did not have opportunity to pursue fully before his death, was the Garifuna connection to Africa.  Aurelio was able to follow this shared dream when Senegalese Afropop legend Youssou N’Dour selected him as his protégé in 2008, as part of the prestigious Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.  Aurelio traveled around the world with N’Dour and spent time with him in Senegal over the course of a year.  N’Dour encouraged  Aurelio to channel his virtuosity, to balance his evanescent stage presence with reserve until just the right moment.  N’Dour also contributed his unique vocal abilities to two songs on Laru Beya, “Wamada” and “Lubara Wanwa”.

Aurelio, along with Duran, also wanted to explore some of the other possibilities of the Dakar music scene. They went to clubs, where groups like Orchestra Baobab invited Aurelio up on stage and later joined him in the studio, learning a verse of Garifuna lyrics phonetically, a first for non-Garifuna musicians, on the song “Bisienu”.  They were also joined in the studio by members of Youssou’s legendary band, the Super Etoile de Dakar. Aurelio and Duran went to Dakar’s poorest neighborhoods, finding rappers and singers in the medina whose Wolof lyrics lend urgency to tracks such as “Wéibayuwa,”  Aurelio’s critique of politicians.  These voices from the outskirts resonate perfectly with the once marginalized songs of the Garifuna.

Aurelio backstage with Youssou N'Dour, Dakar, Senegal. Photo credit: Marc Latzel

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The past marginalization of Garifuna music influenced unexpected aspects of Laru Beya, which was recorded in only a few weeks, but to whose post-production finessing Duran dedicated almost two years in his acclaimed Stonetree studios in Belize as well as studios in Dakar and Montreal.

To guide Aurelio’s sound for Laru Beya, he and Duran looked to the Honduran combos of the 1960s and 1970s, bands that played everything from mambos to calypsos to ska. Everything that is, except Garifuna music!  In those days Garifuna drums, percussion, and language were seen as backward and primitive, even though the Garifuna musicians in these groups were extremely skilled, talented, and popular across Central America.  The rich, varied textures of these vintage groups served as a culturally appropriate model for shaping Aurelio’s songs, and especially inspired the album’s funky guitar sounds and lush horns.

“All these sounds were captured on the spot in our little studio by the beach, we had so many vintage guitars, amplifiers and Garifuna drums that we could barely fit inside,” notes Duran. “The sounds were so focused, the performance so intense. It was very refreshing. There’s a certain sense of excitement and of a new direction. Aurelio isn’t just trying things out. He’s such a rooted artist, and what you hear is the real thing.”

Featured album

  • Laru Beya


    Released 11 April 2011

    Aurelio’s striking interpretations of Garifuna musical tradition reveal his tireless, playful love of making music on the fly, but are also infused by the loss of one of the Gairfuna’s most eloquent and musically talented spokespeople, Andy Palacio. Laru Beya is an album that honours Palacio’s life and work.

By Trista Newyear

Written with Ivan Duran and Dmitri Vietze

Main image photo credit: Katia Paradis

Published on Tue, 17 May 11

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