Interview with Garifuna Musician Aurelio Martinez

Aurelio Martinez - Photo by Angel Romero

Renowned Garifuna musician Aurelio Martinez sat down with World Music Central’s Angel Romero during the 2010 edition of the Forde Folk Music Festival in Norway. Aurelio Martinez is currently the leading figure in Garifuna music.

Tell us a little about your musical history. When did you get involved with music?

I was born in a small community in the Atlantic coast of Honduras named Plaplaya. That is in the Department of Gracias a Dios which is where Columbus arrived. My mother is a Garifuna singer-songwriter, but she never left the community.

My father played the guitar. But my dad left when I was 3 years old and went to the United States. He made homemade recordings and sent them to us. I learned to play parranda through my dad, through the songs that he played for me. I listened and I liked it. I met my dad when I was twenty-two years old; my guitar playing comes from my dad and my songwriting probably from my mom because she is a good singer-songwriter that often arranges songs for me to sing. So I grew up in a musical environment. It was in me since I was very young. I already played when I was 8 years old; I was a good percussionist. I played and it is not normal for a young person in our community to be knowledgeable about ancestral culture because there are celebrations for children and celebrations for grownups.

There is much respect between the grownups and young ones, so then I threatened that I would not play in any celebration if they did not allow me into the celebrations for grownups. In the end, I was the percussionist for the entire community during celebrations.

Aurelio Martinez with his band - Photo by Angel Romero

That way I learned many of the traditional dances and ancestral songs. I learned the culture as a baby. Then when I was 10 years old my grandfather had a combo that he turned over to his children. It had percussion, there was accordion, drum kit, but everything was homemade. The congas were made from one piece. They would carve a tree trunk and made the congas, tightened with cane. So I learned how to play with my uncles. At 10, I traveled to play at other communities in a communal combo.

At 14, I left. My mother had me repeat 6th grade twice because she wanted to keep me there. She didn’t want her baby to move to the city. I didn’t want to stay any longer. I went to the city. I studied by day, worked by day and studied at night. After only a year I was invited to play in the top band in the city and I moved to the eastern part of the country. I played and studied at the same time. That’s how I grew up. I was part of various cultural groups and commercial bands. At 16 or 17, I played in commercial bands and traveled to Miami when I was 19.

After playing in so many diverse groups, how did you make it back to Garifuna music roots?

Well, that is interesting. I always played music and always had the idea to grow as an artist, to learn more about music science although I did not have any musical schooling. I never went to a science school, especially for music. All music comes from heritage, from generation to generation. No one taught me how to play guitar. No one taught me how to sing; I already had that in me. What happened was that when I began to work with music, I began as a percussionist in all the bands. When I returned to the jungle, I found that there was emptiness, an internal emptiness after having a normal job. It became monotonous. Then I found a cultural music collective called Colectivo Cultural de Guillermo Anderson. He is a singer-songwriter who sings to nature. I was one of the founders of his group in Honduras, we began together. We were three, Lucas Calderón, Guillermo Anderson and yours truly. We were a trio.

Aurelio Martinez - Photo by Angel Romero

I later founded Colectivartes and Sangre de Gallo (rooster’s blood) or Lita Ariran, which was a young band trying to recover its culture. Several years went by. I later played for Los Gatos Bravos [one of the leading Honduran bands] and I toured Japan.

I noticed that all the bands had a black buy. It was the little black guy of such band, the black guy of this other band, but there was no afro-rooted industry that had its own project. I told myself that I must do it. That’s when we began to produce recordings. We recorded the disc Sonidos Garífunas Del Mundo (Garífuna sounds of the World) with JVC in Japan. That was a good deal, recorded with a DAT machine.

That was the first project that we did. Soon after, I met Andy Palacio. I think it was in 2000 in Honduras. And he was the one that introduced me to Ivan Duran. Thus, we began these serious projects because we found out that Ivan’s was the first record label that trusted in this type of Garifuna music. That’s how we started the parranda album, later came the Garifuna Soul album, Wattina and my latest project.

We are totally committed to our project. It’s not a power play. The idea is that the world can learn that the Garifuna people can also have stars. So that children can have role models to admire and to prevent the cultural alienation that we are experiencing now.

As I understand, the Garifuna live along the Atlantic coast of South America, in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Is that correct?

Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua. And also Guatemala. There are four countries. In reality, the largest community that we have is in Honduras. They came from San Vicente (Saint Vincent) and founded Punta Gorda in the Atlantic Coast of Honduras. They were fleeing from repression and scattered throughout Central America, in those four countries.

Since the Garifuna community is divided in four countries, are there good connections between the various communities?

Aurelio Martinez - Photo by Angel Romero

Well, there is one organization ONECA, Organización Negra Centroamericana [Central American Black Organization]. That has allowed some types of connections that brought leaders of various countries to discuss the problems of the Garifuna community. In the end, we all speak the same language. In Belize they have an English language influence and we have Spanish. But in the end it is the same Garifuna language.

In Nicaragua there were only two Garifuna speakers. Now we are in the process of rescuing the culture in Nicaragua because the Garifuna culture is disappearing. Fifteen years ago I went to the Garifuna Day celebration in Nicaragua and nobody spoke Garifuna and today makes a year and a half since I was in Nicaragua again and the children that welcomed me by the seaside were saying buiti binafi (good morning) in Garifuna.

The project is working, that’s good. Garifuna culture is in danger of extinction because in the end there are several factors at present that are causing damage. One of the greatest is the evangelical gospel. The churches say that you must not drink or dance. About 90% of our culture is designed through music. That is, at the time of death, when having fun, during celebrations, in all aspects there is music.

How did the culture survive up to now? Are evangelical missionaries going there now?

Aurelio Martinez back home

It really has survived because Garifuna culture was 10 or 20 years ago, a closed culture. It didn’t allow anyone in. There was an incredible hermeticism. A lot of our people did not speak any other language aside from Garifuna. When you arrived to a community as a foreigner or a white person, and you asked for the name of something, they would tell you something else. We were a closed society. When music and dance started becoming commercialized, this is when the community began to open up. Other parts of society, including mestizos (mixed raced), started commercializing culture. It was then that the Garifuna opened their doors of the community and with that change, other things came in. This opening generated some changes, including the arrival of religious faiths. There is a lack of resources and poverty and the international boycott of Honduras which doesn’t affect the rich, affects international aid and this aid supports the neediest. The Garifuna people are part of that community.

Since there is no international support, church X or Y convince the people and because they are in need and also because they lack depth in the knowledge about their ancestors, they are easy prey and they are taken advantage of. Currently, 50% of the Garifuna are evangelicals and the other 50% still believes that our ancestors protect us.

You are at a festival in Norway that has a theme dedicated to musicians or artists who have fought for the rights of freedom of expression or cultures that have been oppressed. How do you see yourself in the context of this festival?

I feel that this fits 100% with Aurelio Martinez because I am a rebel, who really tried to say things that nobody could say. Even within my own community there have been some people who have sentenced me to death for saying things that nobody is allowed say. Because, in the end, each faction within its circle creates things that are inviolable, but one must say them because they are not correct. I believe that freedom of expression and tolerance must always exist so we can accept the thoughts of others. I talk in my songs about the children who are cold and hungry. The leaders talk about this and claim that they take care of these problems, but I expose this through my songs. This festival totally fits with Aurelio Martínez.

I heard earlier that you are the winner of the Rolex Award. What does this award mean and how did you get nominated?

Aurelio Martinez in the studio - Photo by Katia Paradis

I found out about it not that long ago. Ivan [Duran] found out about it on the internet and encouraged me to apply. And I said, why not. Then he told me that I needed to send a lot of things about me so that they could evaluate me. He said that a lot of international artists were applying and I would make a good candidate. So we sent what was necessary to be evaluated. When they called me to let me know I was nominated, I was very happy because a lot of artists were competing for this position. Rolex has a foundation that supports mentors for artists. I won the award and it meant that Youssou N’dour was going to be my mentor. I had a dream, like many other Garifuna, to return to Africa and this meant a lot for me.

And this has a monetary award?

Yes, it is $50,000 which includes $5,000 for travel with the mentor during one year to any part of the world. We went to New York, Brazil and Senegal. We went to several concerts in stadiums in Senegal, seeing Youssou N’dour‘s environment. And then there is $25,000 which is post mentorship for a project that I wish to do. I decided to make an album that traces the slave route under the Garifuna point of view: Africa, the Caribbean and Honduras.

Where does the Garifuna language come from?

Garifuna culture is diverse. There is Arawak, Carib and African influence, but it is not a static language. It has become enriched with the elements it encountered. For example, some of the numbers come from French because the French lived in the island of Saint Vincent and the Garifuna lived with and fought the French there.

You’ve had a political career in the government of Honduras. You were elected a deputy during the Celaya government and as we all know Celaya was deposed in a coup. How did it all happen?

Well, I have, or had, 8 years of political life. First, I was a councilman in the city where i live, La Ceiba. A friend encouraged me to run under the premise that blacks had not had political positions and we had to take advantage of the situation. I managed to be mayor of La Ceiba and then I was asked to run for deputy in the National Congress of Honduras. I didn’t want to do that because the sensibility of an artist has nothing to do with the sensibility of a politician. What normally happens in our Latin America is that politicians are corrupt and I consider myself an honest man. I have tried to fight for the rights of my people and that was my goal because if we leave politics in the hands of the corrupt, then what do good people do? I don’t agree with Celaya’s ideas or with the people behind the coup. I was in a halfway point and thanks to God and my ancestors, I was on tour when the coup happened.

Buy Aurelio Martinez’s latest album, Laru Beya:

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About ARomero

Angel Romero has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusicportal.com, worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. In the TV area, Angel co-produced Musica NA, a music show for TVE (Spain) that featured world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. He was also the executive producer of the first Latino feature film made in North Carolina.