To listen to audio on Rock Paper Scissors you'll need to Get the Flash Player

Sample Track 1:
"Watina" from Watina (Cumbancha)
Sample Track 2:
"Baba" from Watina (Cumbancha)
Buy Recording:
Watina (Cumbancha)
Layer 2
Feature: Palacio earns spot on world-music map with 'Watina’

Click Here to go back.
Oakland Tribune, Feature: Palacio earns spot on world-music map with 'Watina’ >>

By Roman Gokhman It’s a bad sign for a touring musician when, going through customs in a foreign country, the customs agent does not recognize the state seal on his passport.

Just like a popular slogan in Andy Palacio's country goes “Where the hell is Belize?” twice on his current tour. In Germany and Ireland, customs agents doubted the country's existence. Belize, for those who don't know, is sandwiched between Guatemala and Mexico in the Yucatan.

Palacio, 46, is a popular musician in Central America – so popular that Belize made him its cultural ambassador to the world. But it's not popularity that's driving him right now – it's his worry that his race, the Garifuna, has lost its sense of identity.

“I started off simply wanting to make music, and somewhere along the line I discovered that instead of simply becoming popular as an artist there was a bigger contribution to make,” he says during a recent interview.

Palacio and a Belizean producer recruited 17 band members and recorded an album to advocate the survival of Garifuna language and traditions. In a surprising turn of events, the world-music community gobbled up the album, "Watina," since its release in February. That's what brought Palacio and the Garifuna Collective as far as Europe and into America, where they will perform Afro-Caribbean music from their album Sunday at the free Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco.
The Garifuna race was born in 1635 when two slave ships sank off the island of St. Vincent. Several hundred survivors escaped and settled on the island, marrying locals. In 1797, St. Vincent was taken captive by the British, who shipped all of the Garifuna to a little island off the coast of Honduras called Roatan. Some of those people eventually migrated to the mainland and settled in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

Palacio was born in a coastal village in southern Belize. In school he started a reggae, R&B and punta rock band. Punta rock mixes electric guitar, bass and keyboards with the traditional aggressive beats associated with Garifuna dance music.

After graduating from high school, Palacio got a teaching degree from a university. It was in the early '80s when he realized his culture was dying out, and he dedicated his life to preserving his heritage.

'I was a participant in Nicaragua's national literacy campaign and was assigned to a Garifuna community that had experienced a severe decline of culture," he says. "It was bordering on critical in terms of retention of Garifuna identity."

According to Palacio, no one under the age of 50 could speak the native language. "I had determined from that experience to prevent that from ever happening again," he says.

Meanwhile, a trip to London for several recording sessions made Palacio famous back home.

By 2000, Palacio decided to put music on the back burner and entered the civil service.

He started as a rural development officer and worked his way up the ladder to become deputy administrator of Belize's National Institute of Culture and History, as well as the official cultural ambassador for his country.

He is responsible for looking after the country's interests in several international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

It was another Belizean musician and producer who persuaded Palacio to record "Watina." Ivan Duran founded Stonetree Records in 1995 with the goal of preserving Belize's heritage.

"He felt that it would have been an excellent idea for me to assemble some of the greatest existing Garifuna talent across the region to preserve elements of traditional Garifuna music while showcasing some of our own modem creativity," Palacio says. "Otherwise, I would have dedicated myself completely to the desk."

Palacio and Duran corralled a group of 17 musicians that included fishermen and wage laborers along with 75-year-old Garifuna musician Paul Nabor and Aurelio Martinez, who is now a Honduran congressman.

The album was recorded in a thatched-roof cabin by the sea in the small village of Hopkins, Belize.

"The drums form the base of most songs," he says. "Maracas are centrS in Garifuna music."

Some of the songs on the album are part of the Garifuna oral history that was passed down from family to family. Some were written by Palacio and other musicians.

"The album was intended to look deeper into the soul of the Garifuna," Palacio says." 'Weyu Larigi Weyu,' for example, is ... a song that invites divine intervention to cope with the issues of today."

The song, the title of which translates to "day by day," uses a rhythm from a ritual healing ceremony. It is a prayer asking for blessing, guidance, strength and healing.

"'Lidan Aban' is a call for unity," he says. "It's really an uplifting song."

Nabor wrote "Ayo Da" 60 years ago to tell a family that its son was lost on a fishing trip on the river. The song title means "goodbye."

The exposure brought by "Watina" caught the attention of famed DJ Fatboy Slim, who flew out to Belize in March to record with Palacio.

Palacio said "Watina" has surpassed his goals of bringing Garifuna people together, and the press his band received has gotten many others to take notice of the culture.

"There has been universal acceptance (of the music) wherever we've been," he says. "The people backstage at the festivals keep saying, 'Next vacation, we're going to go to Belize.'" 07/28/07
Click Here to go back.