Frontline World

BELIZE - The Exile's Song, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Exile's Song"

Music of the Garifuna

Follow the beat

Land, People, Economy

Background, the Garifuna Diaspora, Punta Rock




The Story
Werman interviewing a musician, Sunest over the ocean, Musician singing on stage

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"He's 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 says.

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 Garifuna.

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 for home.

"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 not die.

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," Martinez says.

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

Videographer/Field Producer
Jason Longo

Ken Dornstein

Bill Anderson

Stonetree Music

Marco Werman reports daily for public radio on PRI's The World.

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