Andy Palacio, Garifuna cultural activist, ambassador and world music star, died suddenly on January 19, after a massive stroke and heart attack. Although desperate attempts were made to airlift him from Belize to a top Chicago neurological facility, by the time the plane reached Alabama, he was unconscious and considered unfit to continue with the flight. Doctors in Mobile said his brain damage was so severe there was little hope of recovery, and at his family’s request, he was flown back to Belize to die.
His tragically premature death, at the age of 47, is especially cruel, as in the course of 2007 he had won unanimous acclaim for his leading role in the Watina project. This album of traditional songs, based on traditional Garifuna rhythms sung in Garifuna, was the result of Palacio’s collaboration with Belizean producer and musician Ivan Duran and the multi-generational band the Garifuna Collective, which includes 79-year-old paranda legend Paul Nabor and rising parandero Aurelio Martinez.
Watina, recorded by Duran’s Stonetree label over three months in 2006, at an improvised studio in a thatched shack in the small Belizean fishing village of Hopkins, shot to the top of world music charts in 2007. It has consistently been voted best world music album of 2007, by numerous publications and broadcasting organisations worldwide.
In October Palacio shared the Womex Award, the pinnacle of world music acclaim, with Ivan Duran for “taking a local music and putting it on the regional, then international stage; making it popular without compromise, yet remaining creative; being committed in the long term to representing core cultural values as a true ‘sonic’ ambassador.” In December, at the end of his annus mirabilis, Palacio was nominated as the 40th Unesco Artist for Peace.
Not since the days of Bob Marley has a Caribbean artiste generated so much global interest, or garnered so many awards. The only album to have met with comparable success to that of Watina in the last decade is the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club. But unlike Marley or the Buena Vistas, Palacio was unique as a representative of the Caribbean’s indigenous people, pre-Columbian survivors, and as the first Garifuna superstar.
Palacio’s success came as the culmination of a project which occupied his entire adult life: the preservation and exposure of Garifuna language, music and culture. The Black Caribs, or Garifuna, of St Vincent occupy a unique place in the history of the Caribbean. Descendants of the survivors of two ships of African slaves shipwrecked off St Vincent in 1635, who intermarried with the indigenous Caribs, the Garifuna fought a guerrilla war against the British.
In 1797, some 2,000 survivors were deported to the uninhabited island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras. They were expected to starve to death. Miraculously however, they made it to the mainland and spread out in Caribbean coastal settlements in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize. Like the Caribs of Dominica they have led a largely marginalised existence, their culture and language threatened with extinction.
In the early 1980s a young literacy volunteer from Belize had an epiphany in a small Nicaraguan village, when he was introduced to an old man, who was astonished when the youth greeted him in Garifuna. The youth was Andy Palacio and the emotional meeting led to his realisation that: “What was happening in Nicaragua, the disappearance of Garifuna culture, foreshadowed what was going to happen in Belize less than a generation down the road.” At that point he made a decision which would inform the rest of his life and bring Garifuna culture to an unimagined world stage: “I decided to follow my passion and focus more on performing Garifuna music as a way of keeping traditions alive long into the future.”
Music occupies a fundamental position in Garifuna life, as Palacio explained in a recent interview in Berlin: “For the Garifuna, music and dance are inextricably linked with survival. Music accompanies us every day, whether we’re at work or play. It is the breath that keeps us alive collectively. At its highest level, it’s an expression of our spirituality.”
Born into the Garifuna community of the Belizean fishing village of Barranco in 1960, Andy learnt Garifuna and how to play harmonica and guitar from his fisherman father. During the 1970s he played reggae, soca and soul, also absorbing the influences of Congolese soukous and Dominican kadans while fantasising about becoming the Belizean Bob Marley.
After his trip to Nicaragua and some production experience gained in the UK, he soon became the star of Punta Rock, an upbeat dance fusion based on the traditional Garifuna punta rhythm, incorporating pan-Caribbean influences from soca and zouk, to merengue, Haitian konpa and Cuban son. His debut album Keimoun was one of the first albums his longtime collaborator Ivan Duran recorded on his fledgling Stonetree record label in 1995. Til D Mawnin, which followed, was recorded with the home-based Belizean Garifuna in mind.
With his youthful good looks framed by locks and high-energy performances, Palacio established himself as a star on the pan-Caribbean festival circuit.
Besides his career as a musician, Palacio worked as a primary and high school teacher, a vocation he saw as a vital part of raising awareness of Garifuna culture. He was co-opted into the Belizean Ministry of Culture as a role model and ambassador, and played an important role in securing the 2001 declaration by Unesco of Garifuna language, music and dance as among “The Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind,” the first such award bestowed in the region. The Watina project was a logical development following the award. Palacio played Duran some tapes of Garifuna paranda maestro Paul Nabor, which prompted Duran “to go back to the roots to find the soulful melodies and real essence of Garifuna music.” As part of the Paranda Project, abandoning keyboards and trap set in favour of an unplugged authentic sound based on Garifuna primera and segunda drums, Palacio was ready for Watina.
The rest is world music history. The contribution of master musicians whom Palacio had long admired, and had been playing with as the Garifuna All Star Band since 2002, make the album a truly communal effort. The band’s name was changed to the Garifuna Collective, “as more representative of the concept.”
Watina’s phenomenal success took Palacio by surprise. Most significant has been the response among young Garifuna in Belize, where “the album’s international success has sparked a revival of Garifuna music as young musicians have been inspired by Palacio’s example.”
As Womex director general Gerald Seligman said when he presented Palacio and Duran with their award last October: “Andy has almost single-handedly put Garifuna culture on the world’s musical map, and by doing so has helped to preserve it.”
When asked in an interview last July how he wanted to be remembered, Palacio unhesitatingly replied: “As a proud Garifuna ...someone who instils pride in the Garifuna and raises their self-esteem. To me that’s the most important.”
At a time when globalisation seriously threatens humanity’s intangible heritage, Palacio’s short life and incredible achievement are gifts we should all be grateful for.
His passion and voice will live on with Watina and other forthcoming Stonetree projects.