On the road with Honduran musician Aurelio Martinez

Exploring 30 years of music from the Garifuna

The lights appeared one by one, coalescing like fireflies. The townspeople of Ciriboya trickled into the village center by flashlight, for the electrical grid hadn’t yet reached this part of Northeastern Honduras, on the emerald edge of the Mosquitia rainforest. The people were compelled to leave their houses by a rumor spreading through the village that Garifuna superstar Aurelio Martinez had made an unexpected stop in town. And so he had — after a long day of bouncing over muddy roads and streams engorged by the winter rains, the flatbed of his pickup stacked with musical gear, Aurelio and his band decided to pause in Ciriboya and stay the night.

By coincidence, there was reason to celebrate in Ciriboya that night. A new medical clinic had just been completed, heralding the arrival of much needed services to this far-flung part of the country. Never one to miss an opportunity to perform, Aurelio hauled out his speakers onto the clinic’s cement patio, fired up a generator, and unleashed a dance party for the ages upon the unsuspecting evening.

Aurelio Martinez, by that point in 2007, had already established a successful career on the world music circuit. He had performed at festivals all over the world, and had a political career representing his state in the Honduran congress. I was a young journalist and researcher at the time living and travelling with Aurelio for several months. In all that time I had never seen him so exuberant and happy as he was on that stage in Ciriboya— hands dancing across the guitar strings, feet drawing conversations with the roiling drums. Performing the music of his ancestors, the Garifuna people.

La Ceiba, Honduras, 2008. Photo credit: Sarah Weeden.

The Garifuna have a story unlike any other in the Americas. They descend from a mix of Africans who avoided or escaped slavery and the indigenous Arawak people that once populated the islands of the Caribbean. Their history begins on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. During the colonial land grab, St. Vincent was decided, by treaty, to be a neutral island reserved for native peoples. According to legend, several slave ships became shipwrecked on the island and the African survivors intermarried with the Arawak who lived there, becoming the Garifuna. Escaped slaves from other Caribbean island continued to migrate to the island, where they could live in freedom, and blended in with Garifuna. Eventually, the British decided to settle the island, and were met with fierce resistance by the Garifuna. A war followed, and when the British eventually won, they deported the surviving Garifuna to Roatan Island, part of modern day Honduras.

Today, the Garifuna live in about 50 towns small and large on the Caribbean coast of Central America, stretching from Belize down through Guatemala and Honduras all the way to Nicaragua. They are bound together by a common culture that includes veneration of the ancestors, a diet of conch stews and mashed plantains, and the Garifuna language (which mostly comes from Arawak.) And, of course, by music.

Aurelio Martinez is, without exaggeration, the greatest living interpreter of Garifuna music. Specifically, he is a master of the paranda, a style based around the acoustic guitar that often draws comparisons to the blues for its often bittersweet melodies and sharp social commentary concealed within songs about everyday life. Although not as well known as Cuban son or Colombian cumbia, it is without doubt one of the continent’s great music traditions — a style deeply African and Latin American at once.

The day after the impromptu party in Ciriboya, Aurelio wakes up his groggy eyed band and tells us it’s time to hit the highway. We drive until the road ends at the mouth of a wide river, and load the instruments into a motor boat. We speed off along the edge of the sea, crashing over waves, past lonesome beaches topped by mountains of velvety green. A few hours later we turn up a river and tie up on a wooden dock populated by various uncles and cousins with outstretched arms. “Plaplaya,” Aurelio says to himself. The superstar has arrived home.

From the moment Aurelio steps foot on that dock, it’s clear that being in Plaplaya unlocks a part of himself he can’t find anywhere else. Plaplaya is the most remote Garifuna town in Honduras, as well as one of the most beautiful. It’s located in the rainforest on a spit of land between a lagoon and the sea, a place of tidy wooden homes with palm thatch roofs and flocks of pelicans gliding overhead. It’s also a place where Garifuna traditions have stayed strong.

 
Young Aurelio by the sea (family album photo)

Fast forward a few hours, and Aurelio is sitting along the river, discussing those very traditions with some relatives. “Our culture is such a beautiful culture, and we’re losing it! There’s not even half of what there used to be,” he says heatedly, in Caribbean inflected Spanish. The fight to preserve Garifuna culture is a topic he can hold forth on for hours, his singular obsession. It’s the purpose that drives his music, and the reason he decided to get into Honduran politics. “The next generation isn’t learning the Garifuna language. In the schoolbooks there’s not one word about the role of the Garifuna. How are our children supposed to learn their history?”

Aurelio learned the Garifuna ways here in Plaplaya, from a single mother who raised nine children while going off into the forest every day to tend to harvest yuca and plantains. “It was a true community,” says Aurelio. “Anybody could show up to our house, it didn’t matter who they were, my mother would always have an extra plate of food ready for a person that needed it.”

When Aurelio was just a toddler, his father migrated to New York City, ferried by one of the merchant ships that employ so many Garifuna men. There, he worked as a laborer, but his true passion was music, and he would send back cassettes of his music to the family in Plaplaya. Aurelio learned his first chords studying those cassettes, on a makeshift guitar he built himself. Life was hard, but it was also good. “We were poor, but in a lot of ways we weren’t poor,” says Aurelio. “If I was hungry and there wasn’t any meat to eat, I could go down to the beach and take fish right out of the sea. In the United States if you don’t have your ten dollars in your pocket, you don’t eat. We were rich in another way.”

At age 15, Aurelio struck out to find work as a musician, armed with a good ear and stubborn work ethic. After playing in a few dance bands, he found his way to La Ceiba, the coast’s biggest city. There, he started a band with a few other Garifuna youths called Lita Ariran (translation: “Rooster’s Blood”, in Garifuna). It was the first band of its kind that Honduras had ever seen— a traditional orchestra with guitars, percussion, dancers and a chorus of singers. The group was ahead of its time in many ways and didn’t catch on with Honduran audiences, so Aurelio decided to let it go and start his own dance band, Aurelio y Los Bravos del Caribe (Aurelio and the Caribbean Braves). The music they played wasn’t the bluesy paranda, but punta rock— a kind of tropical pop driven by the deep swing of traditional Garifuna drumming. Punta rock is massively popular in Central America, with Garifuna and non-Garifuna alike. Aurelio, with his knack for showmanship and easy musical talent, excelled in the genre, scoring a few national hits, not least the classic “Pompis con pompis” (“BootyToBooty”, roughly).

Aurelio and his mother give an intimate performance of "Irawini", recorded live in her New York apartment.
"We were poor, but in a lot of ways we weren’t poor. If I was hungry and there wasn’t any meat to eat, I could go down to the beach and take fish right out of the sea. In the United States if you don’t have your ten dollars in your pocket, you don’t eat. We were rich in another way." Aurelio Martinez
 

The year 1998 rolled around, and Aurelio received an invitation to go to Belize and record with Stonetree Records, a label run by Belizean music producer Ivan Duran. Ivan was working on a Garifuna paranda album featuring greats of traditional Garifuna music from across the generations, including the legendary Paul Nabor and Andy Palacio. In olden days, paranda music was played door to door during Christmas-time in emulation of Spanish tradition, using only maracas, guitar and voices. In recent decades, Garifuna bands in Central America and the New York diaspora began to add electric instruments and drums.

Stonetree’s album took paranda into new sonic territory. They were beautifully detailed recordings featuring the traditional percussion instruments: the gritty bass of the fat-bodied Segunda drum, the snap of the bouncing primera drum above it, resonant sea tortoise shells played like woodblocks, maracas, and conch shells tooted like trumpets. Stonetree’s records also used electric bass, and tasty accents of electric guitars, not to mention the classic acoustic guitar sound that defines the paranda.

Aurelio’s experience recording with Ivan Duran led to a new stage in his musical career. His new goal was to show both the world and his own community the richness of the Garifuna paranda tradition, writing songs imbued with clever storytelling and messages gleaned from the Garifuna way of life, and incorporating the full range of traditional rhythms; music deep and danceable at once.

The next time I meet up with Aurelio after our trip to Plaplaya, it’s 2009, and we’re sitting in a nondescript apartment block in Brooklyn, New York where his mother resettled years earlier, earning a living as a home health aid. As we chat, she hums to herself in the kitchen and makes tortillas by hand with a deftness that belies her old age. She requested that Aurelio come live with her for a little while, for his own safety.

Photo credit: Sarah Weeden

The left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya had just been deposed by the military in the first coup seen in Latin America in years. As a congressman, Aurelio was a member of the former president’s party, and nobody knew who was safe. Reflecting on his time in politics, he grows downcast. “ I went into politics with a lot of hope to help the Garifuna people,” he says. “But in Honduras, politics is for the corrupt. A good person can’t survive there, can’t get anything done. You have to sell your soul, your very honesty just to survive. It wasn’t for me.”

Another event had recently shook up Aurelio’s world as well: the death of his friend and colleague Andy Palacio. Andy had become the anointed ambassador of Garifuna music to the world, and with his passing, Aurelio was keenly aware that the mantle had passed to him. “ I feel like the main cultural representative now of the Garifuna community of Central America,” he mused. “And I think I can do more with my music that I ever could as a lawmaker.”

Over the course of his three studio albums (Garifuna Soul, Laru Beya, and Landini), Aurelio set out to make a difference for the Garifuna people. By sharing Garifuna music with the wider world, he could bring attention to the challenges that his people are facing. For instance, the Garifuna in Honduras and beyond have been undergoing a fierce struggle over land ownership. As it happens, their seaside villages are located on postcard-perfect beaches. As Honduras seeks to grow its tourism industry, those lands are coming under pressure from powerful business and government interests. Garifuna leaders have been harassed and even assassinated for speaking up, and conflicts over ancestral lands have made their way to international court. The more people beyond Central America know about the Garifuna, the more pressure is put on the Honduran government to protect them.

Aurelio during a political campaign circa 2005. Photo credit: Ivan Duran
"I went into politics with a lot of hope to help the Garifuna people. But in Honduras, politics is for the corrupt. A good person can’t survive there, can’t get anything done. You have to sell your soul, your very honesty just to survive. It wasn’t for me.” Aurelio Martinez

Darandi: Track by Track

Learn more about the tracks on Aurelio Martinez's fourth studio album Darandi.

 

Secondly, and perhaps more important for Aurelio, is the mission of reaching the Garifuna youth. “I want young Garifuna people to hear the problems they are living with reflected in my songs, and dance with those same problems.” In his songs, he has addressed issues ranging from safe sex to the tribulations of migration to the U.S. He hopes the children who aren’t learning to speak the Garifuna language will be inspired by his music to sing it.

While hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall culture may capture the attention of young Garifuna, it’s clear that Aurelio commands a respect from his community that transcends fashion. I had the opportunity to see that respect in action in 2013, at the Garifuna Survival Day Concert at SOBs, in New York, celebrating the resilience of the Garifuna people. The vast majority of Garifuna outside Central America live in the Bronx — an estimated 100,000 people in all. Second generation Garifuna kids in New York tend to get caught between worlds due to the identity politics of America. Life here constantly demands them to choose between their blackness and their latinidad, and their Garifuna-ness often gets lost in the shuffle. But at this party, with Aurelio leaping across the stage and singing late into the night, they didn’t have to choose to be anything. They were Garifuna, now and forever more.

Aurelio & his band at Real World Studios, Wiltshire in 2016. Photo credit: York Tillyer

It is the spirit of concerts like those that Aurelio channels in Darandi, his fourth album as a solo artist. Unlike his previous albums, painstakingly recorded one overdub at a time at the Stonetree Studios in Belize, this album captures the unfiltered sound of Aurelio’s incendiary live performances, accompanied by some of the Garifuna world’s brightest musical talents. The album was recorded while Aurelio was visiting the UK for a performance at WOMAD, the British world music festival. After the festival, Aurelio and his band went to the in-house studio at Real World Records, and laid down the record, completely live. He packed the whole band and their gear into a single room. “We got into a zone where we felt like we were in our own community, playing Garifuna music for our people. It was a special feeling,” says Aurelio.

As Aurelio sees it, this is an album that closes a cycle in his career, representing the culmination of 30 years of composing and performing paranda music. The album consists of the songs from his extensive catalog that have proven to be his biggest hits, the songs he plays most frequently while touring throughout the world. They range from “Yalifu,” a gorgeous lament to his childhood separation from his father from his first album, to “Landini,” the swinging title track from his third record.

Following this album, Aurelio says he plans to move in new musical directions. He’s interested in bringing the drum kit back into his ensemble, and experimenting with fusions with jazz and international Afropop sounds. But he won’t stop fighting for Garifuna culture. Aurelio remains deeply concerned about the ability of Garifuna traditions to survive the changing ways of the 21st century. “I worry that we’re the last generation that really knows Garifuna music. I want to see the culture be passed on just as I received it, for it to live on for another 100 years,” he says wistfully.

“It’s important to conserve our culture because, in the end, there are things we have that the world needs. Now matter how small a culture is, it has lessons to teach. The Garifuna don’t pollute. We don’t cut down a healthy tree, we wait for it to become dry before we cut it down. We conserve our nature. Our cultures of the drum, of the song, of mutual respect between neighbors and communal living, the world needs them.”

I’ve heard Aurelio talk like this for almost a decade, and each time there has been a fire in his eyes. A fire, and also water, the green-blue shimmer of the river at Plaplaya, his hometown. And in that river, the reflection of a boy, who looked into his culture and saw the potential of human beings to live in harmony with each other and with nature. A boy with ears ringing loud with music. A boy who would share that music someday, improbably, with the whole wide world.

Featured release

  • Darandi

    Aurelio

    Released 20 January 2017

    Darandi is a collection of Aurelio's favourite songs from his career recorded to capture the sound of his incendiary live performances. Accompanied by some of the Garifuna world's brightest musical talents, pairing upbeat, dynamic rhythms with melancholy, heartfelt melodies, this music is both deep and danceable.

By Marlon Bishop

Marlon Bishop is a Peabody Award-winning radio producer and journalist with a focus on Latin America, immigration, identity and society, music and the arts. He has produced for Afropop Worldwide and NPR's Latino USA.

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

Published on Sat, 14 January 17

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