Like most minorites, Garifuna people hardly ever make the news. The Garifuna people are six-hundred thousand souls who inhabit a the fringes of the Caribbean Sea coast between Belize, Honduras and Guatemala, plus a few scattered islands of the Basin. But there is one aspect of that population that distinguishes them: elements of Garifuna culture are recognized as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and much of the credit goes to its traditional music and dances. The Garifuna musicians Paul Nabor and Andy Palacio (who was also a government official and activist) were deeply significant in this regard. An of course, we must also pay homage to the cultural and social activity of one of Nabor and Palacio’s friends, Aurelio Martinez.
Few days ago, Aurelio honoured WOMAD and its audience with a charming and mellow performance: one of the most soothing shows of 2015 edition of the Festival. He celebrated his culture by presenting a set of artfully mixed infectiously rhythmic tunes, contrasted with soft-hued paranda compositions that cast new light on his recent album Lándini. We met Aurelio on the morning after his performance and had a quick but stimulating chat with him about his tradition, music and the importance of his roots. The last time we met Aurelio was four years ago when we enjoyed a wild show at the Union Chapel in London.
However, his latest album and WOMAD’s gig has changed that perception.
It seems that Aurelio has transformed his approach to music, including more contemplative and intimate traits.
We began our interview by asking him what had happened during this interval. He just needed few moments to say with a smile from ear to ear.
“I’m growing wiser! Seriously, I think that it’s all about maturity and the experience I had with Youssou N’Dour, which reconnected me with Africa and its sounds.
Lándini is deeply related to this transformation and it is linked to an intimate environment, one that mirrors my home and the influence of my mother. These were the starting points for my latest album and I think that they were easily echoed by my music”.
Then we immediately understood the importance of sharing experiences and ideas for Aurelio.
“I think that music is a spread-out process for an artist, it’s about what you learn during your life and artistic experiences. In this regard, I think that music is a give-and-take process and every exchange between different artists is vital. If you want to touch people’s hearts, it is crucial to come in contact with other creative mechanisms”.
So we asked how it was for him to come into contact with Youssou N’Dour, because even though their musical styles are different their messages come from the same seeds.
“One of the things I learnt when working with Youssou N’Dour was his social engagement. I’ve understood that music is not simply a tool to send allegorical messages, but it can also link people. Music can promote positive messages to claim the rights of people in need. I think that this is a way to establish some parameters over some serious problems affecting the world today.”
The world is indeed facing many serious challenges. Amongst them the toughest one is arguably immigration, and Aurelio is quite frank about this issue.
“Immigration is a crucial subject today and finally we can freely talk about it. Social injustice has become an issue affecting the entire world and is well mirrored by many societies, not just by single countries. I think that the poverty of the small countries is affecting the entire world and is no more confined to underdeveloped countries. So, I feel that music is a great opportunity to give a voice to the ones who still haven’t one”.
We asked Aurelio how music can be a messenger, whether it’s just down to the lyrics or whether the music itself plays an important role.
“Undoubtedly, music in its wider context is about the words you sing, which have a straightforward effect on the consciousness of people. When you consider music in its construction process – structure, keys and chords – it can touch people in a different and deeper way than words. There are melodies able to stimulate your subconscious, there’s something more capable of sneaking into your soul and your feelings. I deeply believe in the spirituality of music, I’m spiritual myself so I can’t sing a song that I can’t feel. I can’t sing a song just because I like it, I need to perceive its importance: I have to make it mine. Every song that I sing is my song, even if it was written by Paul Nabor or Andy Palacio, because I need to make it mine to connect people to it”.
Since he mentioned him, we seized the moment and asked Aurelio about his relation with another icon, Andy Palacio
“There’s a lot of confusion about my relationship with Andy Palacio. A lot of people wrote that he was a guide for me, but actually we were like two brothers. We were thinking in the same way about Garifuna music and helped to spread it around the world. I’d really like to explain how our career developed, because in the beginning I met him during the Bicentenary of Garifuna in Honduras”.
Everything started back in 1997 when Aurelio participated in the Anniversary of the arrival of Garifuna people in Honduras.
“I was playing there with my music club and Andy Palacio joined us, so I met him and he introduced me to Ivan Duran [music producer and musician himself] who was leading a music project to develop Garifuna music, but it was still in its early phase. Indeed it had no name or set direction, because it was just a collection of songs sung by some old performers of the Central America communities. So we had to brighten up some songs that didn’t work too well adding more life and let them sound better. I was the youngest member of that project and next to me, Andy Palacio”.
The album ‘Paranda: Africa in Central America’ was the outcome of that teamwork, and opened the way for a close collaboration and friendship between the musicians
“Since that moment, there’s been a deep connection between Andy and me. It was like a deep exchange between two close friends. After that project we released the album ‘Garifuna Soul’, which was the first Garifuna album to reach the top ten in the Afro-Pop charts. The following work we did together was ‘Watima’, which was also recognised by Womex. Unfortunately, I was a deputy for the Honduras Congress in that period and I couldn’t join Andy during the tour, but that was an album we recorded beforehand. So, it’s not like I was his mentor or he was min. We have always worked together and shared our music”.
Since Aurelio was really keen to talk about his music career we tried to delve into his past even further, to reach the moment he first met music.
“Music is my life. I think I was already a musician in my mother’s womb. My grandfather and my father were musicians and my mother is a singer and composes Garifuna music, so my family was my music school. Everything I know about my culture, I learnt it in my community”.
Then there’s also the influence of his grandmother…
“I really have to thank my grandmother too. When I was nine she allowed me to join the Fiesta de los Ancianos, which was an important traditional celebration in my village and usually the youth weren’t allowed to participate. But, at that time, I was already playing percussions and I was looking at those ensembles because they didn’t have a percussionist, so I joined them and had the first contact with the Garifuna cultural process. Then I decided to move to La Ceiba, which is an important city in Honduras, to attend high school and pursue my professional career. So I also moved from a small community ensemble like the one I was playing in Plaplaya directly to a professional band in which I could really develop my musical skills and style. At the same time, I was always looking back at the most traditional aspects of my culture because I felt the necessity to play that music.
And here I am, always going ahead!”
We tried to find out how it feels to spread his culture around the world and what is the reaction of people when listening to Garifuna music.
“Even if my songs are primarily addressed to my community, I reckon that music is a universal language. So my music has an international effect and it’s not necessary that people understand a song in its entirety to understand the message I’d send through its melody. Today I feel that people are looking for identity when they listen to music. If we look back to the 1960s and ‘70s we can find great musicians and it’s impossible to improve the tunes they wrote, so we are finally living in a period when music has found its identity, because it comes from cultures with a lot, even if they are overlooked and discriminated against like mine. Garifuna is a music that comes from common people, it comes from the grassroots and today it has arrived here in UK on the WOMAD stage. This is really important because it can express the global problems that society is confronting”.
Aurelio and his music have recently become regulars at WOMAD. The Honduras born artist played at Charlton Park two years ago. So we asked him what his relation with the Festival and its message is like.
“WOMAD is a place where all the world’s cultures come together. I think that is a great showcase for every artist with a cultural identity or not. It is also a great chance for Garifuna music, because we have the opportunity to talk about our culture and show it to people from all over the world. Today, thanks to my label [Real World] we have had the chance to expose our roots. I reckon that my culture has a lot to learn from the world, but the world has a lot to receive from Garifuna tradition too, because we are more sensitive about the problems of young and elderly people. I also think that our community life is quintessential to show the respect and love people should offer each other and recover the values the world has lost”.
But, as Aurelio told us, his culture is not influential enough to be listened to.
“Unfortunately, Garifuna music is not popular abroad. We are part of a culture that lives in the heart of America and is diffused only in four countries. In addition, there are only four Garifuna bands that have become popular abroad like Garifuna Collective and Garifuna Soul Band. I hope that they can grow and become more successful, but I reckon that we don’t have the numbers of music scenes like the Africans or the Colombian ones. There are many difficulties if you want to overtake cultural and geographical boundaries. Here there are a lot of people who are willing to listen to new music and relate with different cultures, but I have to say that we are just one of the many colours on the canvas”.
But we are pretty sure that thanks to Aurelio’s success and growing popularity, the Garifuna colour will become brighter and brighter. So we asked him what he has in store for his next project.
“As I said to my producer, I feel that I’m coming full circle with my music tradition and I’m ready to venture a little bit further. Actually this is the first time I’m saying this in public, but I’d like to be more intrepid and in my next album I will be more open to other musical styles. I’ve already been influenced by many musical traditions, but this time I want to sound more ‘pop’. I want to keep on with my Garifuna roots and respect them, but I also want to explore different solutions”.
To end our interview we asked if listening to other music affects his style.
“I’m always listening to different musical styles from birdsong to reggaeton, which is a genre that I don’t like, but if I want to understand and connect with people I have to listen to what they like. As a matter of fact, every style is important if you want to travel between the different cultures and understand the new ones that are rising. It’s essential to open your mind if you want to be connected and up to date about the music market and the world itself”.
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