Authentic Garifuna Music

ˇBabinaha numa! (Garifuna for “Dance with me!”)

This spirited phrase seems to call out from the depths of the rhythmic drums. As dancers twirl in brightly decorated dresses, as singers tell their stories through song and musicians shake gourds in harmony with drums, you can almost feel how this act has brought the Garifuna people of Belize together for centuries.

The Garifuna are descendents of Nigerian slaves, brought to the island of San Vicente during the 17th century, and the Carib-Indians with whom they married. Throughout their history they have faced persecution, discrimination and exile, which eventually led to their relocation from San Vicente to Belize. Even during hardships, however, they found peace, celebration and a sense of unity through song and dance.

The drum is the most important instrument in Garifuna music and relies heavily on call and response patterns. Classically, one drummer improvises on the primera or heart drum, a second on the shadow drum, and a steady third on the bass-line. Drums are typically carved out of wood and covered with deer or sheepskin. Turtle shells, bottles, and shakers are also used to add diversity and depth to the sound.

Music and dance help to preserve and celebrate the Garifuna culture. Although the Garifuna presence is strong in Belize, there is virtually no documentation of the language, making song a crucial means of its survival. Even today, Garifuna songs and dances have specific functions within society. For example, the song Eremwu Eu is sung by women as they prepare cassava bread, and the Laremuna Wadauman sung by men while working. As for dances, the most popular is the punta, performed at wakes, holidays, and parties. Couples compete to see who can dance the most stylistically and seductively through a variety of hip movements. This may explain why missionaries in the 18th Century sought to discourage its practice!

A more evolved style of Garifuna music, Punta rock, was created in 1978 by musician Pen Cayetano and incorporates salsa, reggae, rap and hip-hop elements. It has gained international recognition and popularity and can be heard on the radio or seen in concert on satellite TV throughout the world. However, it has led some people to fear the disappearance of authentic Garifuna music because it incorporates electric instruments. Fortunately, actions are being taken by the local governments to preserve the Garifuna culture and to document the language.

If you find yourself on a trip to Belize and happen upon a Garifuna music circle, turn to a friend, say ˇbabinaha numa! and dance to the celebrated tune of the Garifuna!