Aurelio Martinez takes up space in the room even when he is seated. He speaks without hesitation and with big clear gestures. I had wanted to speak with him ever since catching an ecstatic live performance at the Global Beat Festival in New York a couple of years ago. By the end of that concert everyone was on their feet.
Aurelio is a guitarist, percussionist, composer and singer. Darandi is his fourth album (released on Real World Records in February 2017). It represents the best of his thirty years in music. This album captures the live sound of his performance. The musicians were all recorded in one room. So, its lively and real, rather than the precise, overdubbed sound of his previous albums.
To understand Aurelio’s music, you need to know his background. He grew up and spent his childhood in Plaplaya, Honduras, surrounded by Garifuna music. Indeed, he is one of the Garifuna peoples’ strongest Ambassadors. Garifuna music is closer to West African music than to rock; it’s closer to folk than New Orleans jazz. Sometimes, it’s as melancholy as the blues, but always it owes more to Africa than to Europe.
Much of the music has a percussive undercurrent that both grounds it and helps to propel the music forward. The segunda is a bass drum that is at the core of much Garifuna music. Aurelio has a very evocative voice, even if as a listener you cannot understand his vocal, you feel there is true heart in what he is singing
He is a master of Paranda music, a sub-genre within Garifuna music, that is blues-like in feel, and its lyrics, like the blues, often convey a lively commentary on society.
The Garifuna people are the descendants of African slaves who were first bought to St. Vincent in the West Indies and the Arawak Indians. While in St. Vincent, they fought the English colonizers, who killed many of them, the ones who survived were taken to Punta Gorda, Belize. I spoke to him recently about his music, his childhood, and the Garifuna. His conversation is as upbeat as his music.
DJL: Can you tell me about your childhood?
AM: Yes, my mother was a singer and composer of Garifuna music. She represents fifty to a hundred percent of my music, even now when I compose. She is my best mentor. My father was a guitarist. My grandfather too was a musician with the local community band. My music school was my family.
DJL: How did you come to play guitar?
AM: I made my first guitar out of fish line and pieces of wood. (He chuckles.) You know how you come to find toys sometimes. I was about six years old. I first wanted to play the saxophone, because my uncle was a saxophonist. But when I was 15 years old, my Dad, who had moved to America, sent me my first professional guitar.
DJL: The biography on your website describes you as a singer, guitarist and percussionist, but one aspect that is sadly missing, is your incredible dancing. You can get everyone in the audience on their feet, even coming up on the stage to take turns dancing. Sparks fly during a performance. Can you talk to me about your dancing?
AM: Yes, you know when I hear drums, it is impossible for me not to dance. I used to hold onto my grandmother’s skirt as she danced at parties. And you know the dancing is sensual, I was watching all of that as a young boy. I was taking it all in. In Garifuna culture, we have celebrations where both the young and old come together. When I was little – seven or eight – drumming was my special weapon.
I would say to the adults, ‘if you are not inviting me to the party, I am not playing drums.’ I used the fact that I could play percussion to negotiate invitations to come to parties.
DJL: What would you like to say about Garifuna culture to someone who knows nothing about it?
AM: On April 12th this year, we will have our annual celebration that marks 286 years of our living in Central America. Garifuna people are extended into four places: Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. We have a huge Garifuna population in the United States, half a million people. We have food, language, spirituality and music that are all unique to us.
DJL: Are you fighting to preserve this culture?
AM: Yes, of course, the government in Honduras is a threat. They want to convert our community to a tourist place by building hotels on our land. Previously, the Christians said we were diabolical. We have been forbidden to speak our language. We face discrimination and oppression. Yet, we are keeping this culture alive. My band takes our pride around the world, we convey to people a culture that is both powerful and rich. The soul of Garifuna is about bringing people together, in peace and harmony. I am a spirit, the music comes through me. I want to be true in my music. I sing what I feel.
DJL: You met Andy Palacio, who was a known Garifuna musician and a leading activist, who fought hard for the people, before dying at aged 47. Can you describe him?
AM: Yes, we met in Honduras. He was a brother. It was a friendship. We agreed on many things about the Garifuna people, we saw eye to eye, and he loved his culture. We worked on music together. When I first stepped on the beach in Senegal, West Africa, after he died, I was moved. I knew that Andy would have been there with me in Senegal, if he were still alive. His spirit was with me that day on the beach.
DJL: This album Darandi represents your whole career, why now?
AM: It is about closing one part of my musical life, and a renewal, moving into more powerful music. I want to work with other, different musicians, who play jazz or Afropop. I want to open the music up.
DJL: Yalifu is a powerful track on this album. Yalifu is a song of longing. Can you talk about it?
AM: Yalifu means pelican, and in the song I ask, “pelican, lend me your wings so that I can fly.” This is a love song about wanting to fly to my father, who at that time was far from me in America. It was written as I was remembering being young in Honduras and missing my father. The song also speaks to bigger issues of immigration, borders, loss, and longing, how people should have the chance to move freely around the world.
DJL: Landini is also another evocative track.
AM: Yes, it is a song about my reconnecting to my home town, Plaplaya. When I sing that song, the image of my home town appears in my mind: the river, the birds, the boats coming in.
DJL: And finally, what is your hope for the Garifuna people?
AM: Do you know that in 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the language, music, and dance of Garifuna as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity? We love to live in community, not to fight. A grandfather is a grandfather to our whole community. Come to the Garifuna nation to see. I welcome you. I know that we will continue as a spiritual people with our music of love, our culture of love.
To read more about Aurelio and his discography, read his Artist Profile.
Author: Dorothy Johnson-Laird
Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a freelance world music Journalist.