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The Garifuna Collective's 'Irresistible Groove' Captivates Audiences Around The World

In July 2019, Al Obando of The Garifuna Collective transported host John Floridis from Butte's Montana Folk Festival to the small coastal Caribbean towns where the Garifuna community (also known as the Garinagu) speaks an endangered language and sings and dances what UNESCO calls "a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity." The Collective, an intergenerational group of musicians from Belize, galvanizes audiences around the world with lyrical call-and-response melodies and driving, overlapping rhythms, recalling a heritage of West African percussion and indigenous Arawak and Carib singing.

NPR Music's Anastasia Tsioulcas writes about the Garifuna Collective:

"The Garifuna are the Afro-Amerindians of Central America, the descendants of a group of West African slaves who were shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent in the 1600s. They live in small communities in places like Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, along the Caribbean coast. And their music is an extraordinary blend that layers soulful indigenous and African rhythms with sweet, lyrical melodies.

Singing in Garifuna – an endangered language that blends indigenous Arawak and Carib with French, English and Spanish – they take on a political and social issue that extends far beyond the Garifuna community ... Their 2007 album Watina became an instant classic, and probably did more than anything else to bring this culture and language to an international audience."

After their arrival on St. Vincent in 1675, the Garifuna, who intermarried with Carib and Arawak families, formed a free society of Afro-Indigenous people who successfully resisted colonial rule for more than a century before being deported to mainland Central America by the British.

The seed for the Garifuna Collective was planted in the early 1980s when the group’s founder, Andy Palacio, was a young schoolteacher working on a literacy campaign in Nicaragua. After meeting one of the last, elderly speakers of Garifuna in that country, he worried that this loss of culture foreshadowed what might happen in his native Belize, where the economics of coastal development only add to the assimilationist pressures threatening Garifuna culture. On his return to Belize, Palacio began a heralded career dedicated to preserving Garifuna culture through music, eventually working with the producer Ivan Duran to assemble an intergenerational group of traditional musicians who became the Garifuna Collective.

Ivan Duran says:

"Now, it feels like the whole village is singing. That’s beautiful, because it’s a true reflection of what music means in the Garifuna community and how songs are made. It’s always a collective effort.”

(Broadcast: Musician's Spotlight,  9/24/19 and as the Monday Music Special on 3/9/20. Listen on the radio Tuesdays, 7 p.m., or via podcast.)

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Beth Anne Austein has been spinning tunes on the air (The Folk Show, Dancing With Tradition, Freeforms), as well as recording, editing and mixing audio for Montana Public Radio and Montana PBS, since the Clinton Administration. She’s jockeyed faders or "fixed it in post” for The Plant Detective; Listeners Bookstall; Fieldnotes; Musicians Spotlight; The Write Question; Storycorps; Selected Shorts; Bill Raoul’s music series; orchestral and chamber concerts; lecture series; news interviews; and outside producers’ programs about topics ranging from philosophy to ticks.
John Floridis, the host and producer of Musician's Spotlight, has been with Montana Public Radio since 1997. He has interviewed over 200 musicians during that time from household names like B.B. King, Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett, to Montana musicians such as Eden Atwood, Darko Butarac and Tom Catmull. He is also an independent recording and performing artist in his own right and a former registered music therapist.