A tribute to Garifuna artist Andy Palacio
by Nikki Tillet with contributions by Naturalight Productions.

"What made you hold on to your dream?" I ask.

He tilts his head back and answers with a grin and twinkle in his eye, his voice husky and soft as the words rolls off his tongue.

"I don't believe in labels and limitations… I decided a long time ago that I would define my life."

To which I respond, "You have had an extraordinary journey; you should write about it, share it."

As he fiddles with his guitar, holding it like a new born child and strums a few chords of WATINA he replies,

"No… no, that isn't me, I am leaving that to you, you young people... I do music; let someone else write 'about the journey'. "

Andy Palacio and members of the Garifuna Collective It was December 4th, 2007, in Dangriga Belize, where Andy and members of the Garifuna Collective, were preparing for a photo shoot we were doing for the upcoming cover of Global Rhythms magazine, an international magazine dedicated to world music.

The production crew of Tony Rath Photography were thrilled and eagerly anticipating the day's activities. Only a few weeks earlier on October, 28th 2007, Andy had received the World Music Award (WOMEX) in Seville, Spain. The album titled "WATINA" meaning "I called out," was described as "one of the most unusual, intriguing and rewarding musical contributions of 2007." - a prestigious recognition which highlighted the rich cultural diversity of the small Caribbean country of Belize, already gaining popularity as an English speaking, eco- tourism destination on the Caribbean coast of Central America. For this Belizean icon the journey of international acclaim was long awaited. Every Belizean man, woman and child felt pride in Andy's accomplishment.

But today, only a month and a half later the people of Belize and newly found fans all around the world are grappling with the heartbreaking news of the untimely passing of Andy Palacio on January 19th 2008. Without preparation or warning he, himself, "was called".

Andy Palacio "Andy P" as he was locally known, was a Garinagu musician who worked tirelessly to preserve and honor the Garifuna culture, and to place Belize on the world charts of music.

Since the arrival of the Garinagu people (the language is Garifuna) on the southern shores of Belize on November 19th 1832, they have influenced the Belizean identity through music, culture and food, with a significant involvement in the country's teaching, policing and public service. The Garinagu people are the descendants of West African slaves shipwrecked off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in the 1600s and later intermarried with indigenous Carib and Arawak Indians making their way to the eastern coast of several Central America countries. Today the Garinagu comprise about 6.1% of the entire population of some 280,000 Belizeans. The tireless efforts of Garinagu leaders, artists and musicians have been focused on the preservation of the Garifuna culture and Garinagu way of life. And, in 2001 the UNESCO'S Director General proclaimed the Garifuna language, music and dance to be among the "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." This decree highlighted the distinctive value of the Garifuna cultural traditions and stressed the urgency of safeguarding the Garifuna way of life. Music and dance infused with rhythmic sensual drumming has been a powerful call to attention for this little known people's quest to maintain self identity in today's modern world.

Excerpts from Andy Palacio's Biography
(Courtesy of Stonetree Records – www.stonetreerecords.com)

Andy Palacio Andy Vivien Palacio was born in the small coastal village of Barranco, Belize on December 2, 1960. Palacio grew up listening to traditional Garifuna music as well as imported sounds coming over the radio from neighboring Honduras, Guatemala, the Caribbean and the United States. "Music was always a part of daily life," said Palacio, "It was the soundtrack that we lived to." Along with some of his peers, he joined local bands even while in high school and began developing his own voice, performing covers of popular Caribbean and Top 40 songs.

However, it was while working with a literacy project on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast in 1980 and discovering that the Garifuna language and culture was steadily dying in that country, that a strong cultural awareness took hold and his approach to music became more defined. "I saw what had happened to my people in Nicaragua. The cultural erosion I saw there deeply affected my outlook," he said in late 2006, "and I definitely had to react to that reality." His reaction took the form of diving deeper into the language and rhythms of the Garifuna, a unique cultural blend of West African and Indigenous Carib and Arawak Indian language and heritage. "It was a conscious strategy. I felt that music was an excellent medium to preserve the culture. I saw it as a way of maintaining cultural pride and self esteem, especially in young people."

Palacio became a leading figure in a growing renaissance of young Garifuna intellectuals who were writing poetry and songs in their native language. He saw the emergence of an upbeat, popular dance form based on Garifuna rhythms that became known as punta rock and enthusiastically took part in developing the form. Andy began performing his own songs and gained stature as a musician and energetic Garifuna artist. In 1987, he was able to hone his skills after being invited to work in England with Cultural Partnerships Limited, a community arts organization. Returning home to Belize with new skills and a four track recording system, he helped found Sunrise, an organization dedicated to preserving, documenting and distributing Belizean music. While his academic background and self-scholarship allowed for his on-going documentation of Garifuna culture through lyrics and music, it is his exuberance as a performer that has helped earn him worldwide recognition.

Palacio also brought his passion for Garifuna culture into the public sector. In December 2004, Palacio was appointed Cultural Ambassador and Deputy Administrator of the National Institute of Culture and History of Belize.

Andy Palacio and Garifuna Collective in concert. About five years ago, Belizean producer Ivan Duran, Palacio's longtime collaborator and founder of the local label Stonetree Records, convinced Palacio that he should focus on less commercial forms of Garifuna music and look more deeply into its soul and roots. Duran and Palacio set out to create an all-star, multi-generational ensemble of some of the best Garifuna musicians from Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. The Garifuna Collective unites elder statesmen such as legendary Garifuna composer Paul Nabor, with up-and-coming voices of the new generation such as Aurelio Martinez from Honduras and Adrien Martinez from Belize. Rather than focusing solely on danceable styles like punta rock, the Collective explores the more soulful side of Garifuna music, such as the Latin-influenced paranda, and the sacred dügü, punta and gunjei rhythms.

Palacio and Duran embarked on the production of Wátina, an album that would come to redefine modern Garifuna music. The initial recording sessions for this exceptional album took place over a 4-month period in an improvised studio inside a thatch-roofed cabin by the sea in the small village of Hopkins, Belize. It was an informal environment, where the musicians spent many hours playing together late into the night, honing the arrangements of the songs that would eventually end up on this album. While the traditions provided the inspiration, the musicians also added contemporary elements that helped give the songs relevance to their modern context.

Wátina, which was released at the beginning of 2007, became one of the most critically acclaimed recordings of the year in any genre. Perhaps the most unanimously revered world music album in recent memory, Wátina appeared on dozens of Best of the Year lists in major media outlets around the globe and was roundly praised in glowing terms. These best-of lists put an exclamation point on what had been an incredible year for Andy Palacio and the worldwide recognition of Garifuna music.

  • September 2007, Andy Palacio was conferred the Order of Meritorious Service by the Prime Minister of Belize.
  • October 2007, Andy Palacio received the prestigious WOMEX Award which was co-awarded to Ivan Duran.
  • November 2007, Andy Palacio became the first Caribbean and Central American artist to be designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace.
  • January 2008, Andy Palacio announced as winner of the influential BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards (announced January 22, 2008).
  • January 2008 - Andy Palacio and Stone Tree Records receives The Cultural Award for 2007 from BTB ( announced January 24th, 2008)
At home in Belize, the international success of Wátina has sparked a revival of Garifuna music, as young musicians have become inspired by Palacio's example.
(End of excerpt)

Andy's gentle personality was such that it was easy to call him brother, father, son, friend - even for those he had never met and, this is evidenced by comments in recent days;

  • From a Belizean student currently studying in the Dominican Republic,
    "I only knew Andy as a Belizean, I think he is a hero because his music was a deciding factor in me coming back home to Belize."
  • For members of the Garifuna Collective the feelings go far beyond the ethereal, Joshua Arana, the twenty- eight year old drummer of the Garifuna Collective, said, his eyes swollen and his hands nervously holding his sunglasses,
    "We could still do the WATINA tour, but what is the point, when the heart is gone,... 'we' (referring to the Garinagu people) just got a break and now it's gone...".
A quick look at Andy's myspace page www.myspace.com/andypalacio reveals the love and appreciation of those who met him or heard his music. For many their expressions speak of the admiration they have for a man who was not defined by the world and, denied all limitations, demonstrating that maybe one man can change the world. And if Andy didn't change the world, he changed how the world sees the Garinagu and by extension how the world experiences Belize.

More Andy Palacio:

Slideshow of Andy
Courtesy of Tony Rath Photography

Andy performs
Dangriga on Nov. 18, 2007
Courtesy of Tony Rath Photography
When performing Andy was the guardian of his ancestors' legacy, his music a gift. At one of his last performances in Dangriga in southern Belize, Andy intoxicated the crowd with all the songs from the WATINA album.

An Interview with Andy
(With acknowledgement of Dr. MrBig of Africa Oye (Liverpool) www.africaoye.com)
"...It was recorded on Sunday June 17th 2007 at the 15th annual Africa Oye festival held at Sefton Park, Liverpool, England. The recording was made in the hospitality tent and I was accompanied by a friend, Maya Vivian, who speaks briefly with Andy towards the end..."

Lyrics to Wátina

On Andy's passing:

Intelligent Travel (from a National Geographic Traveler)
News 5 Belize
Love FM
New York Times
LA Times
United Nations News Center
Glide Magazine
E Jazz News
Contact Music UK
The Guardian UK

Other links:
Belizeanjourneys – November 19th
Stonetree Records
Cumbancha Records
National Garifuna Council

Images courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • JC Cuellar

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