The Black Carib culture known, as the Garifuna were reminded of their ancestors’ resilient struggle to overcome the brutal racism put forth by the European settlers in the New World. This day marked the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Garifuna on the shores of Central America after being forcibly removed by the British from the island of St. Vincent located in the Caribbean. Though this culpable relocation of their entire culture by the British was meant to circumscribe the Garifuna, they have survived like members of their ancestry did when they were enslaved and brought from Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Today the Garifuna populations can be found in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and many have migrated to the United States.
The Garifuna, also known as the Garinagu, are direct descendants of the “Island Caribs” and a group of African slaves who escaped two ship-wrecked Spanish slave ships near St. Vincent in 1635(Garinagu Early History, 1). The Island Caribs were descendants of South American Indians known as Arawaks and another group, the Caribs, who migrated from South America to the Caribbean at a later date. Through the admixture of these cultures as well as the influence of European settlers in the Americas, the Garifuna obtained a diverse culture that incorporates African traditions of music, dance, religious rites, and ceremonies; Native American cultivation, hunting, and fishing techniques; and a French and Arawak influenced language.
The Garifuna culture displays many influences of its African heritage, and this is extremely evident when comparing their music with the indigenous music of the African societies from which their ancestors originated. According to one source, “most of the slaves brought to the Caribbean were taken from the Niger and cross Delta regions in the Blight of Benin (present-day Nigeria) in West Africa, and from further south in the Congo and Angola”(A History of Belize 5th chapter, 1). Much like the music of these areas, the Garifuna style of music relies heavily on call and response patterns. These patterns are less overlapping than many traditional ones found in Africa, but none the less the Garifunas’ “leader/chorus organization” is very consistent with those of African styles (Franzone 1995, 294). In addition, the importance of the drum in Garifuna music is another similarity to their African influence. Garifuna music relies heavily on the drum, and in many instances their music is dictated by it. Often times a particular drum style will call for two drummers (except for sacred music, which usually uses three). Typically, one drummer will play a fixed, consistent pattern. This drummer is usually called the segunda player. Another more intricate part made up of cross-patterns is normally played by the primero player (S.Cayetano, 1). The drums of the Garifuna are usually made of hardwoods that are uniformly shaped and carved out in the centers. The ends of the drums, whether it be one or two, are covered with skins from the peccary, deer, or sheep (S.Cayetano, 1). These drums are always played with the hands, and some drummers have been known to wrap metal wires around the drumheads to give them a snare-like sound. Some musicians accompany the drums with gourd shakers called sisira, and even instruments like the guitar, flute, and violin have been adopted from early French, English, and Spanish folk music, as well as, Jamaican and Haitian Afro-Caribbean styles (S.Cayetano.
In accompaniment to their music traditions lie the Garifuna songs and dance styles, which are an integral part of their culture. These songs and dance styles that are performed by the Garifuna display a wide range of subjects like work songs, social dances, and ancestral traditions. Some of the work songs include the Eremwu Eu, which is sung by the women as they prepare to make cassava bread, and the Laremuna Wadauman, a song men regularly sing when collectively working together (S.Cayetano, 2). As for songs and dances in the social context, pieces like the Gunchei are quite customary. In this dance style the men take turns dancing with each woman. Another very popular dance style performed by the Garifuna is called the punta. According to one Garifuna author this style is, “ the most popular dance performed at wakes, holidays, parties, and other social events”(S.Cayetano, 2). It consists of different couples attempting to dance more stylistically and seductively with hip movements than their other competitors. While most of these songs and dances is more modern in origin, the Garifuna still maintain many traditional pieces. One of the most famous of these is called the Wanaragua. This dance, which is also known as the John Canoe, is a dance that originated in times of slavery and is performed around Christmas time. The participants will dress up in white masks and venture from house to house in order to receive food and drinks from that household. The dance is said to have been started by both the Creole and Garifuna during encounters at mahogany camps where they were forced to work, and the intent was to mock their white slave owners (Palacio 1993,14). Other traditional dances are defined as: “the Charikawi- a mimed dance where a hunter meets up with a cave man and a cow, and the Chumba-a highly poly-rhythmic song, danced by soloists with great individualized style” (S. Cayetano, 2).
While many of the song and dance styles mentioned above are uniquely Garifuna based, none of them emit the echoing tidal wave of African ancestry like Garifuna ancestral rites and ceremonies do. There are traditionally three main ancestral rites portrayed by the Garifuna. They are defined as: “1. The Amuyadahani- bathing the spirit of the dead 2. The Chuga- feeding of the dead, and 3. The Dugu- the feasting of the dead”(S. Cayetano & F.Cayetano 1984,1). The Garifuna perform these rites because like many African societies they believe that spirits of their ancestors, which are both good and evil have direct impact on the lives of people in the living world. One author confirms this when she says, “Instances of natural death are prepared for. However, sudden or untimely deaths suggest the influence of evil human or spiritual factors, and much care is taken to prevent the restless spirit of these deceased from returning to bother the living”(Franzone 1995,152). When this unexpected death occurs it is announced to the rest of the community by wailing women who go door to door with the sound of drums (Franzone 1995,152). It is for this reason that the Garifuna take great care in providing for their dead ancestors the three ancestral rites, the most extravagant one tends to be the Dugu.
Since it is recognized that the Garifuna are meshed together with influences from many different cultures; it is also possibly in some degree to begin to separate parts of their culture to determine their roots. One example of this is their Amerindian influences of the Arawaks and Caribs collectively known as the Island Caribs. When the African slaves intermixed with the Island Caribs they brought into the culture many African based influences that have been previously discussed. However, in order to better understand whom the Garifuna are it becomes necessary to relate other adopted characteristics of their culture to they're other major ancestral influence, the Island Caribs. This Island Carib culture was one that was founded on yucca and cassava farming as well as hunting and fishing sometime before 1000AD(Garinagu Early History, 1). It is quite amazing then that the Garifuna women are still widely known for their tradition of making cassava bread (Palacio 1993,1-3). In addition, the Garifuna men have always been known for their maritime skills since they were mainly away hunting and fishing from various islands throughout the Caribbean and Central America (Global Neighbors: Garifuna History, 1). It is not hard to understand then why the Garifuna are both a matrilocal This means that the women are at the center of the household and descendants trace their bloodline through their mother’s family. According to one author, “The women are very actively a part of the Garifuna social culture and are known for their leadership ability and articulate speech”(Global Neighbors: Garifuna History, 1). Therefore, while the women are the farmers in which they grow mostly cassava, they are also major role models and figureheads for the young children (Global Neighbors: Garifuna History, 1).
Another influence that the Garifuna had in their defining lines of their culture was the obvious influence of the French during the beginning stages of colonial development in the New World. It was during this time that French missionaries were exploring the region of the Caribbean and teaching the Island Caribs many words of their native tongue, including the use of French numbers and counting systems. Certain expressions were than fused with the Arawak language that the Island Caribs were speaking. This created the Garifuna language that can still be heard counting in French today (Global Neighbors: Garifuna history, 1).
All of these things combined have provided a brief understanding of who the Garifuna are, and where they come from. Furthermore, it has become apparent through reference points to other cultures and more in-depth studies of the Garifuna that their roots were cultivated in many places around the globe. For example, the traditions of their music dance, religious rites, and rituals are all very much seeded in their link to their African ancestry. While the Garinagu forms of subsistence, on the other hand, are more associated with their Island Carib ancestors. Even the European settlers of the New World had a very profound effect on the development of the Garifuna culture. The same culture that is characterized by the blending of distant pieces of worldly influences, driven by the human intuition to survive, and fueled by the desire for freedom.