Garifuna Music and Dance

Garifuna Music and Dance

As we continue the celebration of Garifuna Arts & Culture Appreciation Month in NYC, we present a description of Garifuna Music and Dance, as described in the  UNESCO Candidature Standard Form Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity submitted by the National Garifuna Council of Belize.

There is an intimate relationship between Garifuna language and Garifuna music and between the music and the Dance. Garifuna Music essentially consists of various types of songs that are utilized for different purposes in the culture. The songs are poetry. They capture the history, the values, the aspirations, the concerns and the deepest feelings of a people who have been kept illiterate in their own language. The songs capture and express the totality of the Garifuna experience and in a sense serve as a literature that is waiting to be committed to writing and translated into other languages for our common benefit.

Songs and singing permeate just about every facet of Garifuna life. As a consequence, there is a wide variety of songs covering every mood, and circumstance imaginable. There are certain types of songs that are associated with work, some with play, some with dance and some that are reserved for sacred or ritual use.

As for the melodies and the rhythms, which again are a very interesting amalgam of African and Amerindian elements enhanced by simple instruments in traditional music or by more elaborate instrumentation in the more modern Punta Rock forms, the appeal is universal.

Garifuna dance is just as varied as the types of songs. It has been shown in that the relationship between song and dance types is so close that the dance and the songs associated with it are known by the same name. Thus, one can sing or dance punta, hüngühüngü, gunjai (Gunchei), wanaragua, paranda, sambai, chumba, etc. In addition, the dancers are always expected to know the songs and to even help to “sing for their feet”.

One unique feature of some of the dances including the wanaragua, the chumba and the sambai is that there is an unusual relationship between the drummer and the dancer such that the dancer dictates to the drummer whose task it is to anticipate the moves of the dancer and play accordingly. The drummer has to have a clear view of the dancer at all times, especially his/her feet,

Garifuna music and dance are equally authentic, although some elements may share common origins with some found elsewhere. It is believed, for example, that the Garifuna punta, the kumbia of Columbia and the kumina of Jamaica and the Plena from Puerto Rico share common African origins while the hüngühüngü, on close examination, manifests some Amerindian features suggesting some South American origins. The Paranda reveals some Spanish influence, as the guitar makes its entry into Garifuna music in Central America, while the French influence is unmistakable in the gunjai (Gunchei),  a sort of square dance that utilizes songs, which abound with words that are reminiscent of French.

Garifuna dances were not originally intended for a stage where the audience sits in an auditorium and the dancers perform on a stage. In their natural cultural context there is no distinction between audience and performer. In a ninth night wake, for instance, we find the drummers with the main singers standing behind them and the other people standing around so that there is a circular space available for dancing in front of the drummers. There is certain fluidity so that the individual can participate to the extent that he or she wishes. Everyone can join in the singing, the two dancers in the ring keep changing as the man or the woman steps back into the crowd and is replaced by another who may have just been standing around or sporadically joining in the singing as the songs that he or she likes are sung.

The Waribagabaga Dance Group was the first dance troupe organized to seriously take on the challenge of arranging the dances and perform them on a stage without doing violence to the dances and the culture. They set a very high standard that was enhanced by international exposure, which also demonstrated the universal appeal of Garifuna music and dance and inspired the formation of similar groups in other parts of the country and the neighboring countries. One such group is the Ballet Folklorico Garifuna de Honduras, a national dance company in Honduras. With financial support from government and foreign technical assistance that group has managed to reach a very high level in choreography and performance and is very much in demand in festivals around the world.

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