The Garifuna Collective: Music with A Purpose

“This music is from Belize? I was just there, I never saw that!” a woman exclaimed as I walked past her at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival last Saturday. She was pointing at a set of turtle shells. Hooked by a long strap, they hung from the neck of the Belizean drummer she seemed to have just met after the show. Behind them, a junkanu dancer was removing his pink and white mask, his body covered in a now-damp long-sleeve white shirt and pants, his knees still padded with cowry shells. I understood the delight in her voice: a few years ago, I had the good fortune of discovering Belize’s entrancing Garífuna music while venturing to southern Belize.

A day later, on a Sunday evening, walking down a basement stairway and past a glass door, I stumbled into a funky red-lit lounge, buried underneath a Subway sandwich shop. If I hadn’t read patron reviews of this venue, I would have spent another hour looking for it.

Leaning back on an orange, wall-lining futon, I noticed a tall man in dark jeans, a black tee, beret and scarf. I knew no one else in DC would lounge in a subterranean club at five o’clock, save for bar staff and musicians. As soon as I approached, he smiled and stretched out his hand, while I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Sam.”

“Are you part of the Collective?”

“Yes, yes I am.”

I tell him how excited I am to meet them. For all my Garífuna experiences in Belize, one was missing: meeting The Garifuna Collective — a unique collaborative, multigenerational group of Garífuna artists. Six years ago, their first album “Watina” won worldwide acclaim. So much so that in 2009, Amazon named it first on its Top 100 list of Best World Music Albums of all time, even ahead of other top artists such as Youssou N’Dour, Fela Kuti and Tito Puente, among others. Unfortunately, the band’s beloved leader, Andy Palacio, passed unexpectedly after Watina was released, at just 47 years of age. I knew that meeting his band mates would be as close as I could get to learning about his cultural mission.

“So, what part of the south are you from, Sam?”

“Oh no! I’m from out west. These guys are from the south,” he says, pointing to the back where the remaining members were >> >> gathering, readying for sound check.

Out west? As in, the Mestizo and Creole district of Cayo?

I’d heard right. Sam, it turns out, is Creole, and jokes that he is “an honorary Garifuna.”

If I had remained standing all this time, I now dropped into the chair behind me, facing Sam and putting my gear down as we plunged into a discussion about culture in Belize–or rather, the distinction among Belize’s Afro-descendant groups.

It’s a conversation I had back in November while re-exploring Dangriga for Moon Belize. An established local Creole musician moonlighting as a tour guide and driver — Brother David (Obi) — was showing me the ins and outs of this southern town. After finding out I was Ethiopian and therefore his “African sister,” Bredda David and I had spent the entire day discussing Belize’s African roots, while we looked for jaguar tracks at Cockscomb, tackled the rocky trails of Billy Barquedier, and swallowed the fire hearth smoke at the cassava farm.

“We should be calling ourselves Afro-Belizean,” Brother David had concluded. I had agreed; after all, both the Creole and the Garífuna were West African descendants. Both taken away from their homes. One group escaped, flourished and fought, and mixed with Carib Indians. The other was enslaved and worked the mahogany camps in Belize, forced to mix with the British and creating the Creole population. The distinction is real in Belize among the groups, and this was the first time I had heard a Creole say that the two groups should unite.

And now, sitting before me, just like Brother David, was another example of Afro-Belizean unity: a respected Creole musician among an acclaimed group of Garífuna musicians. “People just don’t know,” Sam tells me, “and if they went back to their part of Africa to see for themselves, their attitude and perceptions would be so different. They would learn, and value who they are and what they are.”

“I always told Andy – thank you for letting me ride your shirttail and learn, so I can pass it on some day to my group or to another culture. I gained from this – I’m giving a little, but I’m gaining a lot.” – Sam Harris, Lead Guitar 

Yet somehow, the Garinagu (plural of Garífuna) have beat the odds in preserving their culture, still celebrating every aspect of their traditions – from food to worship and music.

Garífuna Music comes to North America

This summer, North Americans are getting a taste of this little-known Afro-Amerindian culture, thanks to The Garífuna Collective. Seven members from the group are performing at some of the most popular summer festivals across the US and Canada. From the Winnipeg Folk Festival to Reggae on the River, they are gracing stages alongside Canadian singer Danny Michel, who discovered and fell in love with Garífuna music during his first visit to Belize over 10 years ago. I had the pleasure of meeting Danny Michel last December on Caye Caulker, while he was in Belize recording with The Collective.

25 cities in 7.5 weeks — a first for any band from The Jewel.

The Collective’s new CD, Ayó was released this month and is already a hit – almost as much as their first, Watina.

Ayó means goodbye in Garífuna, and is a tribute to Andy Palacio and his work in preserving Garífuna culture through music. It’s a goodbye to their friend and colleague’s body but not his spirit, which according to the culture lives on forever. The new album is another catchy mélange of Afro-beats, soul stirring drumming, chanting and even Central African guitar beats. A blend of the traditional with a splash of modern. I’ve had a hard time pressing pause; it’s on constant replay on my phone.


I almost forget about the purpose of my presence in the basement lounge on a hot afternoon, while Sam and I discuss AfroBelize. But it’s time to talk to the rest of the band. Below are highlights from my conversation with this warm and inspiring group of artists.

– Desiree Diego, Lead vocals and percussion (Dangriga, one of two female members in the Collective)
– Lloyd Augustine, Vocals and guitar (Hopkins, Former member of Punta Rebels)
– Sam Harris, Lead guitar and back vocals (Cayo, the “honorary Garifuna”)
– Al Ovando, Bass (Griga Valley, also the group’s sound engineer)
– Joshua Arana,  Lead  Garifuna (Primero) drum and back vocals (Dangriga)
– Denmark Flores, Bass Garifuna (Segunda) drum and back vocals (Dangriga)
– Mohobub Flores, Turtle shells and Lead vocals (Dangriga, Original member of the Turtle Shell Band)

How long have you now been on your North American tour?

We are almost in the third week of our tour. We don’t remember the number of cities at the moment (laughs) but DC is our stop before we head to Canada next. (Lloyd)

How have new listeners in the US and Canada received your music so far on the tour?

The reception has been amazing. People are catching on to the idea of The Collective and Andy Palacio’s story. We’ve played for more foreigners than Belizeans in general — Belizeans always make us feel at home and foreigners have welcomed us as well.  (Joshua)

How many artists actually make up The Garifuna Collective?

You have the touring Garifuna Collective, the recording Garifuna Collective, and then even more members you might not see but who are contributing – like Paul Nabor, [Honduras star] Aurelio Martinez, and others.

Some compose, and others do the vocals. It’s a group vibe. First we sit together and create, and then we take it to the studio. Some of the tracks on Ayo were created during a group retreat in Hopkins. In the studio, it’s the touring band you see here, plus all the other members.

At last count, at least 30 musicians make up The Garifuna Collective.  (Al)

How long has your new album Ayo been in the making since Andy Palacio’s passing?

We started working on it in 2009. We feel it’s very important to continue Andy Palacio’s work – we had to continue. So we decided to record an album and let the world know about our culture, because that’s what Andy was fighting for.  (Lloyd)

From the label standpoint, this is a continuation of Watina. We knew that The Collective had to have another album. So after Andy Palacio, we worked on lots of collaborations, like with Kobo Town and Danny Michel. After Andy passed, there was a lot going on in the studio, we were always there creating songs. With no album, there’s no tour, so we made the album happen. (Al)

How would you compare Ayo to Watina?

We don’t want to compare the two – Ayo is a continuation. There are all those people who worked hard for us to be able to get to this point. So our work is a continuation of all those who came before us and worked hard. And we hope that the younger generation will in turn continue our work. We’re here making sure that the drums of our fathers live on. (Joshua)

Growing up in West Africa, I listened to all kinds of African music. One or two tracks on your new album — such as “Mongunu” — have Congolese guitar beats. It’s a very distinct rhythm that I recognized right away. Where did that inspiration come from?

Our producer, Ivan Duran, came up with that idea.

You also recently performed on tour with Ali Farka Toure’s son, one of Mali’s (and Africa’s) great musicians. Do you all listen to African music at all?

We do listen to it, it’s really wonderful. We listen to the grooves and the instruments and it just sounds familiar, that African sound, that drum rhythm. The inspiration is natural. It’s amazing. African music has reached very high levels and traveled far. Our (Garífuna) music is more simple, theirs more complex. We are inspired by it but then we record our own original songs. (Al)

The Garífuna Culture was given an endangered status back in 2001. Today, how do you see the Garífuna culture doing in Belize – is it still in danger, or do you have hope?

Yes, we have hope, simply because there is a school in Dangriga called Gulisi, and they teach the kids how to speak Garífuna, sing Garífuna songs, and so on. That gives us hope that the culture will live on. (Lloyd)

And then we have our dictionary, that helps. We have our Bible, and more books being written in Garífuna. (Desiree)

Do you guys have kids?

Ooh, many! [The group breaks out in laughter]

Do they speak Garífuna? Do you teach them?

Well, a lot of the kids down there have lost it. They listen to it, but they can’t really speak it. The younger kids, you send to the shop and tell them what to get [in Garífuna], and they go “wha you ah say?”  (Mohobub)

For me, I teach my kids. Right now, I have an 11 year old who is helping me sing! (Desiree)

That’s fantastic.

One important thing about our culture: in the Garífuna flag, we have three colors. Yellow, black and white. The yellow signifies hope. We feel there is hope for the revival of other aspects of our culture – whether it be the language, the dance or the music. Especially with this, with this that we’re doing, there is a lot of hope for the development of all the aspects of our culture. (Joshua)

What is your best tip for visitors who wish to experience Garífuna culture in Belize?

The best time to go and visit is right around November 19, when the Garinagu reenact their arrival to Belize. They’ll see the traditional celebrations in Dangriga, and eat Garífuna food, like hudut or darasa, which will be available in abundance. After that, they can go on to Hopkins Village. (Lloyd)

Congratulations on all your achievements — what you all are doing for your culture is absolutely amazing. Is there anything else you’d like to add, thoughts you’d like to share?

Yes. We’d like to add, that the youths in Belize today are turning to reggae, dancehall and hip hop. The ones doing music don’t want to do punta rock, or make paranda music. We’re hoping that after our success on this tour — if we are successful — that it can change their thinking, and that they can start embracing their culture and start recording their own unique music. (Lloyd)

At the end of the day, you’re supposed to be who you really are. So you need to learn where you come from, where you want to go and where you’re heading to.” (Desiree)


While you plan your adventure to the Garífuna side of Belize, don’t miss The Garifuna Collective as they continue to tour Canada and the US through August 10. And check out their new album, Ayo, now available on Cumbancha or on iTunes. If ever there was an album with purpose, this would be the one. As the members of the Collective added backstage, the Garífuna culture is not only for its people, it is to be shared with the entire world.  You would be supporting a group of artists who are working hard to preserve their culture for future generations, a mission from which we all benefit.

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