Listen: Aurelio Martinez is Sharing his Garifuna Music With Us

Aurelio Martinez grew up in Plaplaya, a small coastal village in eastern Honduras. Because of its isolation, it has stayed a stronghold for the customs and culture of the Garifuna people.

Martinez, who sings and plays guitar, has become their unofficial ambassador. Known for his wide smile, easy laugh and infectious personality, he projects pure passion when discussing the unique world of the Garifuna.

“Our culture has its own language, food, dance and everything, but music is our life,” Martinez says. “For everything that happens in the Garifuna community, we have music. We have music when somebody dies; we have music when somebody’s going to work; we have music when we have a party.

“The spiritual nature of our music is very important to us,” he says. “So when you listen to Garifuna music, even if you don’t understand our world, you’re going to feel our spirit.”

The Garifuna came into being during the 1600s when shipwrecked West African slaves intermarried with native Arawak Indians on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In 1796, after warring with the Garifuna over the island, colonial British forces relocated the survivors to Honduras, which has been their home ever since.

Martinez grew up in Plaplaya surrounded by family members, including uncles and grandparents, who sang and made music as part of everyday life. His father played guitar and his mother sang and wrote songs in the Garifuna tradition. For young Martinez, making music came as naturally as breathing the salty Caribbean air.

“I was 8 years old when I had contact with my first drum and my first guitar, which I made,” he says, chuckling at the recollection.

At 14, Martinez moved to the city of La Ceiba to attend high school and explore opportunities in music. Although steeped in paranda — a rhythmic, guitar-based, Afro-Caribbean style unique to the Garifuna — he adapted to more popular forms in order to earn a living.

“I did merengue, bachata, ranchera and everything in the Spanish style,” Martinez says. “But I didn’t forget my personal music. My spirit is to preserve our culture.”

Since the early 1990s, he has worked to raise awareness of the Garifuna people and their culture as both a musician and politician. It is a pressing endeavor, since both are threatened from within and without.

Their language is in danger of disappearing, and rising HIV-AIDS infection rates among the Garifuna is a concern. The people are poor, and their modest numbers — there are an estimated half-million worldwide — are found mostly in Honduras. Scattered Garifuna communities also exist in the neighboring Central American nations of Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and the U.S. cities of New York, New Orleans and Houston.

Martinez became the first black congressman in Honduran history.

Ultimately, however, he decided he could accomplish more through musical outreach.

Along with friends and collaborators, Martinez has brought Garifuna music to the world stage and forged a powerful connection linking its Latin origins with its African roots.

He first recorded with Lita Ariran, a group he formed with his friend Lucas Calderón in the 1990s. Their debut album, “Grupo Garifuna de Honduras,” has been hailed as a world-music classic.

In 1997, Martinez befriended fellow Garifuna musician Andy Palacio and producer Ivan Duran, whose Belize-based Stonetree Records has issued work by them and others. One release, “Paranda: Africa in Central America,” was a landmark compilation of Garifuna artists. It included songs from Martinez and Palacio, plus paranda legends such as Paul Nabor, Junior Aranda and Jursino Cayetano. Martinez simply titled his contribution “Africa.”

“In it, I’m talking about the nostalgia we have in Central America and America to come back to our roots in Africa,” he says. “A lot of people like me, we have to come to Africa to reconnect with our ancestral towns.”

Martinez’s first solo album, “Garifuna Soul” (released in 2004), earned him acclaim as “Newcomer of the Year” from Afropop Worldwide.

In 2009, after serving in the Honduran National Congress, Martinez finally got to visit Africa. His destination was Dakar, which is the capital of Senegal, the western-most African city and a primary point of departure for slave ships.

Beyond connecting with his roots, he recorded with legendary Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour — with whom he was paired as part of a mentoring project — and with Orchestra Baobab, a renowned Afro-Cuban big band.

The resulting album, “Laru Beya” (2011), was made partly in Honduras and partly in Africa, providing a tangible link between Garifuna music and the mother continent. He said the experience of working with African musicians was deeply moving.

“The first time that the Garifuna music comes back to Africa to connect was a special time,” he says. “So you see the drums from Africa connecting with the Garifuna drums, and African people singing in Garifuna, never hearing the language before or having experience with Garifuna people.

“Our styles are very different, but we have the same feeling, we have the same emotions, we have the same soul in the music.”

After communing with Africa on “Laru Beya,” his latest release, “Lándini” (2014) brought him back to the world he knows and loves. His mother, Maria Martinez, was the main inspiration for the album, on which Martinez returned to the festive sounds of paranda and songs relevant to Garifuna life.

“The more I have traveled and seen the world, the more I have seen the need to reconnect with my roots,” Martinez has said. “The farther I go, the more I want to come back.”

Source: N&R Greensboro