Garifuna Culture

Garifuna culture unites Garinagu people in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and also those who now live in other countries including the United States.

In 2008 the Garifuna language, music and song were inscribed as part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (UNESCO – Intangible Heritage of the Garifuna)

Origin of the Garifuna Culture and People

Garifuna cultureIn the 18th century slave ships from western Africa became shipwrecked near the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean.  Several hundreds of slaves that escaped and made it to shore settled on the island.  Already living there at that time were Carib and Arawak Amerindians (originally from South America). The African settlers intermarried with the inhabitants of Saint Vincent.  This created a new ethnic group that became known as the Garinagu (in the past also know as the Black Caribs).  The culture of the African settlers combined with the language and culture of the Carib and Arawak into this new “Garifuna” culture.

Conflict with European Settlers

In the late 18th century French and British settlers in the islands fought for control over Saint Vincent.  The Garinagu population sided with the French.  However the British won, and forced the Garinagu population to the island of Balliceux.  Many thousands died on the journey across the Caribbean and on Balliceux.  Those that survived continued their journey and ultimately settled along the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.

Garifuna Settlement Day

Every year on 19th November Belizeans celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of one of the largest groups of Garifuna people to the shores of Belize in 1802.  This day is called Garifuna Settlement Day, or sometimes simply as “Yurumein”.  Yurumein is the Garifuna name for Saint Vincent, the island where several Spanish slave ships were wrecked in the 17th century.   This eventually led to the emergence of the Garifuna people and culture.

Garifuna Culture and Language

The Garifuna language belongs to the Arawakan group of languages and has survived centuries of discrimination and linguistic domination. It is rich in tales (úraga) originally recited during wakes or large gatherings.  The Garifuna language has also adopted words from the other nationalities that are involved in their history.  This includes French, Spanish and English.

If you ask a Garifuna person to count from one to twenty, you will soon recognize the French influence.  The Garifuna words for window, sheep, and cheese are also examples of the French influence.  Many Garifuna people’s surnames are traditional Spanish names, such as Martinez and Bermudez.  Others are Spanish, such as Augustin and Franzua.

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Warasa Garifuna Drum School

Warasa Garifuna Drum School is a cultural and educational site located in the peaceful coastal town of Punta Gorda, Belize. Under out authentic traditional thatch palapa made from 100% natural and sustainable materials, see hand-carved instruments and family cultural artefacts. You are welcome to simply look around while we explain the history of our fascinating culture, or experience an authentic, interactive lessons in traditional Garifuna drumming, dancing, drum-making and more at Warasa Garifuna Drum School.
We offer rich educational experiences to both local and international visitors, and can accommodate school groups of up to 25 students at a time. Learn about the rich history and culture of the Garifuna while learning the different traditional drumbeats and dances that influence music throughout Belize and Central America.
Enjoy our spacious traditional thatch drum school in the heart of the Garifuna community.  Surround yourself with lush vegetation, see parakeets flocking around, hear sounds of howler monkeys nearby.
All just a 20 minute walk, 10 minute bike ride or quick taxi ride away.
We share the Garifuna culture with locals and visitors which helps to preserve the culture for generations to come.  We welcome guests of all ages and backgrounds.  Don’t worry if you’ve never done any kind of drumming before or if you think you can’t dance.  We welcome those with no rhythm, two left hands, two left feet, and of course those who consider themselves professionals.
Read about us in Lonely Planet,  Moon Belize and most other reputable guidebooks.  Also check our TripAdvisor reviews, Facebook reviews and Google+ reviews.

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How to shake your arse (Belize style)

Go to any bar with live music at night in Belize, and you will witness the dominant form of Belizean dancing, which like the dominant form of Belizean music (Punta rock), originates from traditional Garifuna culture.  That is, it involves shaking your arse.   Visitors to Belize often marvel at how Belizean women especially are able to “move their ass completely independently of the rest of their body”, and think that they have developed special arse muscles that allow such frenetic yet well-controlled booty manoeuvres.

I have a secret to share: no special arse muscles are involved.  In fact, I would venture that you don’t really use your arse muscles at all.  Or even your waist muscles (not at beginners’ level punta/punta rock dancing anyway).  The key is all in the feet and legs.  If you stand still, feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly, and then bend one knee more than the other, you will find your other knee straightens.  Then you switch and bend your other knee forward more.  Keep doing this, and you will find a funny thing happens: your arse moves side to side.  No special arse muscles required.

Of course, to look professional, you have to do it in time to the music, and be able to move around side-to-side, forwards, backwards, in a circle, and a few other little fancier movements here and there, but that is the basic secret.  So stop focussing on your arse, shift your knees, and be prepared to look like an idiot.

Ray likes to take credit for the fact that I can now dance punta (and paranda, and to a certain extent hungu-hungu), and while he did give me two or three lessons (where even though it was just me and him in the house I still felt like a complete idiot!), I think most of it just came from getting bored sitting down watching everyone else having a good time, and finally thinking “ach stuff it who cares” to all those that wanted to laugh at the white gal who (couldn’t) dance.

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Yurumein: The story of the Garifuna

Every year on 19th November, Ray, his family, and pretty much every Garifuna person in Belize (plus lots of other interested Belizeans and visitors) will attend their local “Yurumein” on the national holiday known as Garifuna Settlement Day, the anniversary of when the largest group of Garifuna people arrived on the shores of Belize.

 

Yurumein is the Garifuna name for St. Vincent, the island where several Spanish slave ships were wrecked in the 17th century, allowing their occupants to escape slavery and mix with the local indigenous Arawak and Carib Indians living on the island, creating the Garifuna culture, language and ethnicity.  But the word “Yurumein” now also refers to the annual re-enactment of when the Garifuna arrived in their new homelands in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua after being expelled from St Vincent by the new British colonialists in the 19th century.

In PG, this re-enactment involves two or three boatloads of Garifuna people paddling towards the main dock, carrying essential crops such as banana, plantain, cassava and coconut to plant wherever they land.  The also carry their flag, and also come playing drums to announce their arrival.  Unlike the original arrival, in the Yurumein re-enactment, hundreds of local Garifuna people line the shore and the dock waiting to greet their brethren, wearing traditional clothes and also carrying flags, drums, and crops, and singing and dancing in greeting.  Local British/Zimbabwean/Belizean Jack Nightingale, who is a portly middle-aged white man with blonde/white hair and an English accent, takes on the role of the British Governor General, and thus when the first boat requests permission to settle in Belize (British Honduras way back then), he refuses the request.

 

 

He refuses two or three more times, and the lead boat paddles back to discuss the next move with the other boats, but persistence pays off, and eventually the Garifuna boats are granted permission to land and settle the uninhabited coast in the south of Belize.  The new arrivals land their boats, and join in with the singing, dancing and drumming, and parade town to much celebration, before going to church for a brief ceremony.

Last year, 2010, 19th November was a rainy day, but although rain stops many Belizeans going out under normal circumstances, the Yurumein still went ahead, and had even more poignancy, as made you ponder what it must have been like to travel across the sea for weeks looking for a new homeland, only to be refused entry.  I would have persisted also!

And so the coastal Garifuna towns and villages Dangriga, Punta Gorda, Hopkins, Barranco and Seine Bight were formed.  The other Garifuna village in Belize, Georgetown, is inland, but was only founded after some families from Seine Bight relocated following a bad hurricane.  While Garifuna people make up less than 10% of the population of Belize, their influence is widespread, especially in the areas music and education, with the majority of Belizean musicians and a large percentage of Belizean teachers being of Garifuna heritage.

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Drums of the ancestors

Dugu – Painting by Belizean artist Benjamin Nicholas

Listening to many Garifuna songs, they are very up-tempo.  My Scottish indie-rock loving music tastes assumed that they must therefore be quite cheerful – maybe about catching lots of tasty fish a particular day.  But that’s not how Garifuna music works – there is a particularly up-tempo Garifuna punta song that is all about when Hurricane Hattie almost completely destroyed many towns and cities in Belize:

Wa ba bumalali, Sili, lanarime dan
(You’ve raised your voice, Syl, how terrible the storm).
Wa ba bumalali, nirüa
(You’ve raised your voice, my child.)
Nabugu yali ubüu
(The earth has been brought low)
Wa wama ferudun, wonweguü yebe
(Let us beg forgiveness, we nearly died)

Larugan aningira hüruha ubüu
(At dawn the earth lay in sadness)
Laramaüahandügü wagüa, giüngiuüahündügü wagüa
(We could only stand around, just sucking our teeth).
Higüu waban? Barüla Hati
(Where is our house? Hattie has taken it)

Garifuna people believe in ancestral spirits, and that their ancestors continue to talk to them and guide them after death.  For this reason, death is not considered such a sad time, and the wake of a well-known Garifuna person in PG is one of the biggest parties to be found in any given year, with all night drumming, dancing and singing (plus a little gambling to round things off).

The most important cultural ceremony that the Garifuna conduct is the Dugu, a large ceremony that takes place in the local Garifuna temple that can last over a week – I was honoured enough to attend 24 hours at one of Ray’s family’s dugu.  A Dugu is held whenever there is some kind of trouble in the family, and the ancestors ask for a Dugu through the Buyei – the spiritual leader of the Garifuna temple., in order to heal the illness or seal the family rift that has occurred.  The entire extended family is expected to attend, no matter what country they live in.  The drumming during Dugu is especially important, with the sacred Dugu rhythm being played on large segunda drums only, which have been blessed and should never leave the temple.  Daily offerings of food are prepared, with each ancestor’s favourite food being specially prepared.  Once the appropriate drumming, singing and blessings have taken place, and the ancestors have had their fill, the living family can eat, with any left over food being ceremonially buried.  Drumming, singing and dancing goes on through the night, with the drummers only sleeping for one or two hours here and there.  Incense such as copal (termite nests!) burns throughout the Dugu.  At certain stages some family members may be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor and either start dancing in the same style as the ancestor, or may pass on some oral advice or message.

Ray told me that when he went to a family Dugu after our trip to Scotland, his grandfather told him (through the Buyei) that he had followed us, and described in detail some of the places we had visited.  Sometimes evil spirits make an appearance during a Dugu, and they most be exorcised by even more spiritual drumming, dancing, singing and blessings.  While I may be a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural, I totally respect Ray’s spiritual beliefs, and have certainly witnessed for myself the healing effect it has on a family during troubling times.

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The Drum Whisperer

Ray is famous in PG for his drumming. He may never have one the annual “Battle of the Drums” competition in PG (clearly the judges aren’t in their correct minds), but anyone that loves drumming will hire Ray and his family to drum for any event above any other local group. As Ludwig Palacio, local poet, artist and veterinarian once said to me: “some people knock drum like they’re at war with it, like they’re trying to knock it into submission… but Ronald – he caresses that drum and produces something magical” Of course I am totally biased, but I do happen to think Ray is the best drummer in Belize, possibly the world. One day, I asked Ray how he learned to play the Primero. I knew that he taught himself from age 5, but obviously he must have been watching someone. Sadly his inadvertent teacher (called Simon) is no longer alive he said, but he must have been good. Ray says his teachers at school would always scold him at school for drumming on his desk…it’s such a shame they couldn’t have channelled his talent instead of telling him off about it.

 

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