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gone, he's gone away, mama, this stranger, he's not from here."
This plaintive Garifuna ballad tells the story of the descendants
of West Africans who live in Belize today. Marco Werman, the
veteran music reporter for Public Radio International and a
FRONTLINE/World correspondent, first heard Garifuna music
on a trip to Central America 10 years ago. "It stayed with me,"
says Werman. Returning to Belize for the PRI radio program The
World, Werman sets out to discover whether the old roots
music is still being played.
Tucked between Mexico and Honduras on the Caribbean Sea, Belize
is a small country, covered mostly by forests. Most of the people
are a mix of Hispanic and Mayan Indian, but about 6 percent
of the population are Garifuna, or Garinague, descendants of
shipwrecked African slaves who settled in the Caribbean some
400 years ago. The Garifuna lived as free people on the island
of St. Vincent until they were exiled by the British, then found
refuge in Belize and Honduras.
Werman's first stop is in Dangriga, where the Garifuna have
lived for nearly two centuries. He arrives for the annual celebration
marking the first Garifuna settlement in Belize. Marching bands,
reminiscent of the old days of British rule, fill the closed-off
streets on the national holiday.
But when Werman happens upon a drum circle that night, the
sound and feel are distinctly West African. "We are Africans
in the diaspora. We are Africans away from home," says Ifasina
Ifanyeme, a local journalist, who has been trying to trace the
Garifunas' history in Central America and the Caribbean. She
sings a new tune by a popular Garifuna songwriter, Aurelio Martinez.
The song's message, says Ifanyeme, honors the origins of her
people. "[Africa's] the place; it's the roots; it's the mother
of all Garinague. It's the mother of all Black people," Ifanyeme
Next, Werman sets out to the road for Punta Gorda, the seaside
town which is home to Paul Nabor, one of the last great Paranda
singers. Paranda is the name of the mournful ballads of the
When Werman finally locates Nabor's old rundown home, he finds
the singer, who is now in his 70s and tired. His guitar is worn
and out of tune. But the musician comes alive as he plays an
old Paranda ballad, singing lyrics of love, loneliness and longing
"That was the first song that I made when I was young," says
Nabor, who started out playing Paranda more than 50 years ago.
Nabor used to travel the country performing, and he's also toured
Mexico and Europe. He hopes the rich history of this music will
Aurelio Martinez is one of the few young Garifuna musicians
trying to revive the old roots music. On the steps of his beach
house, he sings Werman a song called "Africa" affirming the
Garifunas' connection to their ancestors.
Martinez describes the tragic themes of the music. "The songs
are about the problems of everyday life for people," he says.
"Sometimes you don't understand it, but you feel it. If you
can't feel it, you can't sing Paranda."
Martinez has achieved some success, recording songs for a
Paranda album popular among world music listeners. But in Belize,
he's struggled to build an audience for his music. "The music
is in danger, because this [older] generation no longer exists,"
If there's an audience for new Garifuna music in Belize, it's
for the more up-tempo Punta Rock, growing in popularity and
often heard in the country's dance clubs. Werman explores the
musical style, which combines traditional punta drumming with
Caribbean beats, at Punta Fest 2003 in Dangriga.
The turnout for the first-ever national musical festival,
showcasing famous Punta Rock icons like Andy Palacio, is impressive.
On stage, Palacio joins Aurelio Martinez for a moving duet,
recalling a traditional Paranda ballad.
Although Palacio made his reputation with Punta Rock hits,
Paranda is the music he really loves. "There's a certain style
of poetry in Paranda," Palacio says. "We don't sing the way
we speak in Garifuna. Songs tend to do something," he pauses,
"something magical to words."
When Palacio and Martinez performed their duet at the Punta
Fest, they were inspired by the old paranderos, who will
soon be extinct. The voices of the young musicians are carrying
the Garifuna story and music into the future.
Marco Werman reports daily for public
radio on PRI's
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