From Punta to Chumba: Garifuna Music and Dance in New Orleans
By Amy Serrano
"So after Katrina, we all dispersed. We went to different states. But since our roots are here, we returned."
The lively and proud Garifuna population that presently lives in New Orleans traces its dual origins to Nigerians from the West Coast of Africa, as well as the Arawak and Carib Indians that inhabited the Caribbean island of St. Vincent during times of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. The Garifuna—whose name is often said to be in honor of "Kaliponah," a new world Garifuna leader—have also been called the Black Caribs by British colonizers in order to differentiate them from the Native American Caribs that inhabited St. Vincent and other Caribbean islands where Africans destined for slavery were transported sometime between 1635 and 1675.
History and oral testimony claim that while on board a slave ship and witnessing the misery endured by fellow passengers, this particular group of Africans revolted and the vessel wrecked off the coast of St. Vincent. To survive in a new environment, the Africans comingled and intermarried with native Arawaks and Caribs, adopted much of their diet, traditions, customs, and livelihood, and they even blended their indigenous language into their own African vernacular resulting in a new dialect composed of Bantu and Swahili combined with Arawak and a smattering of French. What emerged is a fusion of the African with the indigenous peoples who later became known as Garifuna. Surviving being uprooted and relocated but never enslaved, these distinct people generated a proliferation of enduring cultural traditions.
While making a life on St. Vincent fishing, hunting, gathering, trading, and raising families, the Garifuna continued to struggle against the British colonial authorities, and unlike their purely indigenous brethren—Arawaks and Caribs—that were gradually decimated by the ravages of warfare and disease, the resilient Garifuna managed to survive. Originally, the Garifuna defeated the British in St. Vincent, but by 1797, the British felt they had tolerated enough Garifuna resistance and forcefully banished close to 3,000 Garifuna men, women, and children to the island of Roatan, directly north of mainland Honduras. Though they would eventually spread out in small groups to other places along the coast of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize, the majority of Garifuna made the island of Roatan their home.
Since Honduras was under Spanish rule at the time the Garifuna landed in Roatan, the Garifuna adopted the Catholic religion and made Spanish their second language. While the community as a whole never relinquished their ties to the animistic and shamanistic aspects of their own African rites and religion, Catholicism and its inherent values were especially woven into daily life by the women of the community. Attendant to their spiritual life, the women used music and dance to fully express their concerns for the inner, but especially the outer world. Music and dance became a way to explain their daily lives and surroundings, a vehicle to communicate Garifuna struggles and ideas, and an antidote to celebrate life and release Garifuna pain.
Currently, the largest population of the 200,000 or so transnational Garifuna people can be found in Honduras (90,000), with much smaller populations in Belize (15,000), Guatemala (6,000), and several thousand scattered in South America, as well as about 50,000 that live in North America within colonies found in New York, Miami, and New Orleans. While sometimes unnoticed in the community at large, today the Garifuna people continue to preserve their language, customs, foodways, and perhaps their most renowned tradition: their exceptional storytelling faculties through the diversity and amplitude of their music and dance.
Garifuna of New Orleans
After being dispossessed of their land by the growth of the country's burgeoning banana trade, in the early 1900s the Garifuna began cultivating the fruit and loading the harvest for the locally based American export and shipping companies. Meanwhile, the politically unstable Honduran government gradually increased its dependence on foreign subsidies to bolster its feeble economy. This led to additional political and economic instability and the already marginalized Garifuna increasingly faced greater economic hardship.
By the 1960s, New Orleans was one of Honduras' largest trading partners and President John F. Kennedy posed a socioeconomic initiative that resulted in the Garifuna coming to New Orleans in large numbers. Doña Zoila Martinez, in her 70s in 2009, and perhaps the most respected and renowned Garifuna elder, tradition bearer, and community leader recalls the conditions that led to her arrival, ". . . en ese tiempo estaba el Presidente Kennedy y entonces dieron esa ayuda para la gente que se llamaba "Alianza Para el Progreso" buscando gente para venir a trabajar. ¿Ve? Asi fue que yo consegui para poder venir a los Estados Unidos." " . . . during the time of President Kennedy they gave all this help to people under something called the Alliance for Progress. They were seeking people who would come here to work. You understand? That is how I was able to come here to the United States."
Presently, the Garifuna community of New Orleans is made up of a mixed population of multiple generations that predominantly established themselves at the time of Doña Zoila's arrival in the 1960s and then proceeded to have their own families. Most come from the towns of La Ceiba or Triunfo de la Cruz in Honduras. They have formed enclaves in New Orleans East, in Central City, and Uptown near the Mississippi River. Yet determining the actual population of Garifuna from Honduras in New Orleans remains an ongoing challenge.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census data, Hondurans are New Orleans' largest Spanish-speaking cultural group with a population of 11,237. The census form does not allow for mixed African and Central American ancestry, so it is difficult to determine exact population numbers. Additionally, many Garifuna refer to themselves as a race and have issues identifying as either Hispanic or African-American for the census. This is further complicated by the fact that Garifuna now live in other Central American countries and could be counted in the U.S. Census as from other countries. Further, numbers of documented and undocumented Garifuna people arrived after Hurricane Katrina, while others evacuated and did not return.
These latter Garifuna—typically men—arrived and continue arriving as a consequence of hurricanes and bad storms to do reconstruction work and send money back home to their families. One such immigrant, Efrain "Cupe" Amaya, also known as "DJ Garifuna" is a drummer in his late 20s who is part of a Garifuna band in New Orleans East called Legacy. He explains, "I came here in 2005 in search of a better future . . . since there was work here, and I had no work back home, I stayed for work here."
And while quietly rebuilding New Orleans along with other Central American counterparts, this new generation of Garifuna is equally contributing to the culture of New Orleans in other ways. With music and dance being such an integral part of their traditions and daily life, the Garifuna enjoy sharing these with New Orleanians whenever possible.
José Dolmo, another young Garifuna who arrived post-Katrina—and works in reconstruction by day—fused his Garifuna drumming with a local band called Ecos Latinos during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2008. He recalls this intercultural music experience:
I had the pleasure of sharing my Garifuna culture, and it was very interesting to integrate the Garifuna music with other cultures here in New Orleans, to share in community making. To share in music, in rhythms with other cultures. To play to the same rhythm. It was a marvelous form of excellence. It makes me realize that we can shine in this place that is New Orleans.
Yet as a whole, the Garifuna of New Orleans remain mostly invisible. Most New Orleanians, will say that they have never heard of the Garifuna, but when told a little of their history and traditions, they appear fascinated, want to know more, and wonder why they have never heard of them. They are even more surprised to learn that there is a sizable population living in the greater New Orleans area.
One reason that may account for their remaining a mainly insulated community originates with the experiences faced by the first wave of Garifuna. Arriving in the 1960s and early 1970s, being dark skinned, and speaking Garifuna and Spanish, it was difficult to fit into African-American or Spanish-speaking circles, or the community at large. Through the passing of time and intermarriage with Hispanics or African Americans, the Garifuna appear to have overcome some of the earlier ethnic, racial, and cultural isolation. Some of the newer arrivals like José Dolmo will say that in a city like New Orleans, the Garifuna can feel a such a sense of freedom to be who they really are: "We have a culture similar to that in New Orleans. We have a culture of joy, of warmth, of a friendly nature, we laugh a lot like New Orleanians. We enjoy life. That's how we are. Many other people enjoy our culture too."
Garifuna Music and Dance
Perhaps with the exception of Cuba, no other Latin American or Caribbean country as a whole is as noted for the mulitiplicity of their music and dance forms as the transnational Garifuna. Well known for its strong West-African influence on the vigorous rhythm of drumming styles and dance forms, their music is also highly indicative of the African oral tradition of call and response patterns in songs, and allusions to the sacred or ancestor worship. The Garifuna say their music is not about sentiment or emotion like in most other Latin American and Caribbean countries. The Garifuna say their music is about events, rituals, and concerns. It's about describing and dealing with the world around them. Rutilia Figueroa, a Garifuna elder has the following description of the meaning of their music:
The Garifuna sing their pain. They sing about their concerns. They sing about what's going on. We dance when there is a death. It's a tradition [meant] to bring a little joy to the family, but every song has a different meaning. Different words. The Garifuna does not sing about love. The Garifuna sings about things that reach your heart.
The Garifuna enjoy playing and dancing to their music during birthday parties and other celebratory events, as well as rites of passage. They also listen and dance to their music at community festivals, sports bars, and in the church where the music and dance take on a more spiritual and reverent tone.
A traditional Garifuna band is generally composed of drums and call and response vocals following the Garifuna's West African heritage. Typical instruments include hollow log garaon drums, which involve the primer; a tenor drum which is also considered the heartbeat or heart of Garifuna music ensembles. Then the segunda, a counter-rhythmic drum which acts to shadow the primera and tercera. Finally, there is the tercera or third drum that maintains the continuing bass line.
Other percussive Garifuna instruments that are scratched, beat, or tapped include a wooden guiro or clave, and other percussion. In line with the traditions of other indigenous populations from the Americas, siseras or maracas and other organic shakers made from a gourd and filled with dried seeds also find their way into the music. Instrumental variables may further include wires pulled over hollowed drums to give the Garifuna music a natural "zzzzzz" sound equally found in the music of West Africa. Perhaps with the exception of bottle percussion, all instruments are made from the first generations of things found in nature including turtle shells, wood, seashells, and more. Zulema Zuñiga, a young Garifuna woman, claims this organic nature is what gives the Garifuna music its purity and singularity:
I think one of the reasons our music is so compelling is 'cause it's so natural. It's of the earth. 'Cause when you look at the drums, they're made from the trees. It's part of everything natural. The shell is something you eat and use. So it's something you feel. All the Garifuna instruments are handmade. That's what we feel. And when you hear it, it calls to your heart. The drums just beckon.
The drums are central to a variety of Garifuna music and dance forms that include the hunguhungu, mascaro, indio barbaro, chumba, guanaragua, gunchei, luyano, yankunnu, paranda and the more popular punta, as well as its more modernized version, punta rock. Each musical style differs in its rhythm and form of expression and aside from enjoyment in social settings, is otherwise attributed to an event or time of the year including the Christian holidays of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the day after Christmas, the Epiphany, and also New Year's Eve.
There are many stories to account for the name given to the most popular Garifuna music and dance, the punta. Some of these stories are based on meaning, while others are based on myth. In Spanish, the word punta means "point" as in "tip," and some say the dance derives its name from being performed with the very tips of one's toes. But the word punta also means "point" as in a location or a place. Musician Martin "Tingo" Martinez, relates the following folktale about the origin of the name: "It comes from the 1500s when there was a man who would hunt children and tell them, 'I am going to eat you today'! So when he was hungry, he'd take one of them, roast them, and eat them. When he died, the children were so happy, they began to dance from punta to punta" [from "place" to "place"].
The music for punta is performed with traditional instruments of garaon drums, other percussion, and voices. The dance is enjoyed by couples and the focus of the dancers' movements is on the hips which rapidly sway from side to side, but with a slower rhythm than in some other Garifuna dances. The punta is said to symbolize fertility, but it might also represent pain. It can equally embody aspects of ancestor worship and allude to the sacred. Like other Garifuna music and dance, the punta is thoroughly enjoyed during festive weekend social settings within homes, parks, nightclubs, but also danced on special holidays. A more contemporary form of punta with origins in the 1970s is the punta rock. Though most Garifuna music has remained committed to the purity of its origins, punta rock is a modern version of punta that includes electronic instrumentation. While it is popular amongst some of the younger Garifuna, typically, it is not considered authentic by the purist elders.
The Garifuna also have special dances and rituals for the winter holidays; a time of year that Doña Maria Elena Zuñiga refers to as "the time of the happiness of the Garifuna." In a highly joyful manner, Doña Maria Elena describes typical holiday traditions as practiced in Honduras; many that were also practiced in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina:
And during the time of the holidays, they come out with a man they call the Guarine, to begin the festivities [in December]. They dress him with coconut leaves. ? He dances from punta to punta, then they bring him back the 6th of January. Then they bring out the Guanaragua around the 26th of December to dance from house to house.
In conjunction with the costumed man they call the Guarine, Doña Maria Elena describes how he is joined by the Pastorales; a choir of female singers who typically sing songs about rural themes and other aspects of Garifuna life, while seeking small, goodwill gifts of food or money:
Then come the Pastorales seeking offerings. They come with a cane, their maracas and the Guanaragua like to steal the ribbons of the Pastorales so when we see the Guanaragua come, we look for other places to sing 'cause they follow us. They chase us to steal our hair ribbons to weave it in theirs and so everyone is involved in the chasing and the running away. It's very amusing.
She continues to describe other holiday events: "On the 27th, they bring out the Flandigano, a male figure who dances in the ritual, but they put extra feet on him [stilts]. He dances and it's very beautiful to see his costume move. Everyone follows the Flangidano. It's very beautiful!" Dances and music traditionally enjoyed during the month of December and early January include the guanaragua, the chumba, the gunchei (a dance for happiness and also for courtship, which like the luyano, is also enjoyed among the elders), and of course the punta.
Death—being the final rite of passage—does not go unmarked, and during funerals, the Garifuna gather at the home of the deceased to dance the punta. Not only do they dance and play music to ease the transition of the deceased from this world to the next, but also, to bring some joy and happiness to the remaining family. Then after the funeral, and if the Garifuna need to make contact with the deceased to ease their transition, the music and dance rituals continue and center around a ceremony the Garifuna call a Dugu. Doña Zoila elaborates on the tradition of the Dugu:
Well, the Dugu is like when a family has had a dead relative for long time so they want to seek a different kind of help. They first begin with a ceremony. And then comes someone called the Chuku. See? They lay food for the deceased and they have to go to church and the family gets together to sing and dance. And when it ends, they make a hole in the ground and bury the food. That's part of our ancestry. So when the time of the Dugu comes, it's a big deal.
As in Honduras, many Garifuna in New Orleans display food for the deceased though because of expense, it tends to be on a smaller scale. Around the displayed food, family members and friends gather to sing, dance, and find mutual comfort. According to Doña Zoila, when a Dugu ceremony is necessary in New Orleans, everyone contributes money to make it possible.
Then there are dances that are specific to each gender. At social gatherings the men usually play their instruments in a circle while other men enter the circle to dance and the women watch. At other times and depending on the music, women enter the circle and the men watch. Sometimes both men and women enter the circle and, as some play while others dance, they simultaneously sing songs that tend to follow a call and response pattern with the men beginning the chant and the women responding. At other times and depending on the song, the women lead and everyone responds as the dance continues.
The more aggressive dances tend to be performed by men. The indio barbaro, for example, is a rigorous dance where the man wears a devil costume. Then the mascara, which they also call yankunnu, is a dance whose music carries a highly aggressive rhythm and its dance is typically performed competitively by men who enter the circle one at a time to outperform each other. The rhythm is hard, and the action is focused on the brisk, yet bouncy movement of the dancer's feet. The yankannu is also typically performed in Carnival-like settings and during holidays. The mascara or yankannu is related to, but different from, the more well-known Bahamian tradition of jankanoo.
Women tend to enjoy other dances like the paranda, which also takes place within the music circle. The music for the paranda is slower and highly percussive and, at times, acoustic guitars are added to the traditional band. The dance is performed with almost equal energy from the shoulders, the torso, and feet, which together follow side to side movements.
The chumba is another dance performed by women, and done to a three-beat rhythm within the circle. Some Garifuna scholars claim it is danced as a defiant reminder of the days when women were the sexual subjects of the colonizers, and also as a form of protest against slavery in the sugar industry. At many levels, another dance performed by women and called the hunguhungu resembles the chumba. It is also done to a three-beat rhythm with hips moving from side to side and back again, usually danced within a circle, and has a social consciousness element. This dance is performed by women to beckon the community to consider current social problems. They raise issues and questions through call and response songs and while performing, often wear bells and noisemakers on their knees.
Continuity of Tradition and the Role of Women
While men in the Garifuna community tend to learn their customs through informal apprenticeships, when it comes to the active teaching of folk traditions within the Garifuna of New Orleans, it is the women who consciously conserve and are especially interested in passing these on to the younger generations. This continuing practice resembles the past when the Garifuna first arrived in Honduras and it was the women that were the incubators of the space where West African and indigenous spirituality merged with the Catholic religion into their emerging Garifuna folk expression, and ultimately, within family, ritual, and celebration.
This is not to suggest that at a fedu (a Garifuna word for a gathering or party), men and women do not intermingle. In fact it is typical for women to dance with men in the drumming circles, while children watch and easily begin to sway. But outside of these fedu, the women consciously nurture tradition in a different kind of appointed space that usually involves a family and spiritual context, and is specifically organized for the passing on of traditions.
To shed some light on the background of the custom of women ensuring the passing on of traditions within a family and spiritual setting, Juan M. Sambula, a former community activist from Honduras who recently came to New Orleans for reconstruction work shares the following:
For us, the women are dedicated to the children and the church because customs we have are based on the Gari tribe of Africa, mixed with Arawak. So I think that the mother's role in this case is different because she is dedicated to the children and the church while the man is dedicated to his friends.
Doña Zoila Martinez reflects upon a time in the late 1980s when she realized that if their traditions were not passed on to children now in this country, they would soon be forgotten or lost forever:
I can tell you that at the beginning it was hard, but because we are as we are, even humbly do we continue to not forget our ancestry through our ways of life. ? I always told people that I did not want this [our traditions] to end. Young women and men were being raised here and did not know where they came from, who they were, so I always talked to my people.
To pass on the Garifuna music and dance traditions to the children in the early years, Doña Zoila organized the parents and voiced her concerns. She asked for parents to allow her to teach the children their Garifuna music and dance traditions. Before long, Doña Zoila was able to find about 20 young girls who volunteered to learn the Garifuna ways under her tutelage. She taught them the traditional Garifuna dances while her good friend Doña Maria Elena Martinez, who at the time sang in the church choir, taught the children the traditional Garifuna songs. Doña Zoila remembers how she rallied the mothers to action:
What motivated me was that I never wanted that the Garifuna traditions be lost. So I found other mothers who felt like me and when I began speaking with them about this, they said "we are with you." When I spoke I would speak to the mothers. After, the girls also became accepted as my daughters because they [the mothers] knew that with me, they were fine.
To be able to afford to feed the girls after the vigorous teachings, Doña Zoila and the girls collected and sold aluminum cans they would find on the street. She recalls how they raised the money:
I never liked to ask for anything. That's why we collected and sold our cans. And I would make and sell cooked foods to have a little money for the events. Because in my case, there was also the transportation involved and since the dance is so hearty, when they finished, I always wanted to make sure they had something to eat. See?
In this manner and right up until Hurricane Katrina, Doña Zoila and Doña Maria Elena have passed on the dance and music traditions of the Garifuna to many sets of Garifuna girls in New Orleans who have now passed these on to their own daughters. This is not to suggest that the men in the community are not involved, but while they engage in drumming and singing during public festivities and pass on traditions through observation to younger generations, it is the Garifuna women in New Orleans who ensure continuity of the traditions of their community by active recruitment, teaching, and storytelling in a more private and deliberate sphere.
A Garifuna Day of Celebration
After having engaged in preparations and rehearsals for over two months, on November 9, 2008, the Garifuna women of New Orleans held the first Garifuna Mass that had taken place since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though in English, Spanish, and Garifuna, the event at Blessed Francis X. Seelos Catholic Church in the Marigny neighborhood was eagerly attended by diverse members of the community; white, black, Hispanic, non-Hispanic, and of course, Garifuna. Unlike typical Catholic masses which last about one hour, the mass lasted over two hours and included special song and dance performances by Garifuna women.
As three Garifuna men played instrumental music from the front of the church with two men on drums and one on acoustic guitar, the guests entered through an entrance adorned with flowers and baskets filled with ceremonial fruit typical of Garifuna culture that included yucca, plantains, and coconuts. There were also special lanterns placed among the baskets of fruit and flowers.
Once guests were seated, the formal procession began with a group of women entering the church led by two young women carrying flags, followed by others singing, dancing and sometimes twirling with one hand in the air. Some women wore traditional Garifuna dresses and head scarves in bright, ethnic prints and some in solid colors. Others wore their own skirts and shirts and also accentuated these with colorful head scarves. The dancing women sang evocative songs in a call and response type manner, danced the hunguhungu from side to side, and moved from the back of the church towards the altar as the audience watched and swayed while the Garifuna choir encouraged them along. Leading the group was Maria Elena Zuñiga and Olga Suazo, and within this group of women dancing and singing down the aisle, all generations were represented; daughters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and two Garifuna Catholic nuns. Some younger mothers even carried their young daughters or held their hands as they danced down the aisle past Doña Zoila who proudly looked on from her seat of importance in the front of the church. Then as the women made it to the front, many of them took their place in the choir to the left of the altar. Some even picked up instruments including maracas, a guiro, and a clave and joined the male drummers in music making.
Following behind and right before starting the official religious service, a few of the younger women including Zuelma Zuñiga, entered and danced the hunguhungu down the aisle, but in circular fashion with their slower movements accentuated by using palm fronds as props. The choir sang and the men played the garaon drums. Following the event inside the church, there was a gathering on the outside patio where food had been prepared by the Garifuna women to sell and raise money for their next event. The fundraiser and social gathering was generously attended by members of the church and the menu included a repast of chicken fajitas with rice, ground black beans on tortillas with dollops of fresh cream, fried sweet plantains, tripe soup, and water and sodas. After this social gathering, the women then met on their own at Olga Suazo's house to talk about the events of the day, and begin to make plans for the future again.
Garifuna Music and Dance in New Orleans Today
While some Garifuna chose to relocate after Hurricane Katrina and initially thinned out the local Garifuna population and number of events, today more and more Garifuna have returned to New Orleans and continue to arrive. On a Saturday night, the vibrant sounds of Garifuna drumming, singing, and dancing from a fedu in New Orleans East can easily be heard from the sidewalks of residential areas as well as community parks and neighborhood bars. In the greater New Orleans area, the number of recreational sports and music venues populated by Garifuna men also seems to be on the rise. And whereas prior to the storm there was only St. Theresa de Avila Catholic Church on Erato Street in Central City that stood at the epicenter of the Garifuna women's spiritual and social life, Blessed Francis X. Seelos Catholic Church is also now holding Garifuna masses and is the stage for Garifuna family events and food sales.
On an international level, the Garifuna music, language, and dance were declared "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] in 2001, and in New York, November 19 has been officially designated as "Garifuna Day." On a local level though, and without community support, the Garifuna of New Orleans face some challenges. They receive some indirect support and promotion through local non-Garifuna cultural organizations like CubaNOLA Arts Collective and Ecos Latinos, or individuals like Rudy Mills who has the band, Caribbean Funk. But there are no overarching cultural organizations that directly endow the sharing of their traditions on a public level or recognize the Garifuna. And most Garifuna express a desire for formal organization, and more ways of sharing and exchanges with the community. Yet within the domain of family and immediate community, the Garifuna strongly insist on sharing and maintaining their traditions, their history, their language, their stories, their identity; and the women actively engage in passing all of these on to the younger generations.
At present and if they can gather the funding, Zulema and her husband Tingo want to offer workshops to teach people Garifuna drumming and dance. And encouraged by last November's turnout at Blessed Francis X. Seelos Catholic Church during the Garifuna Mass, Doña Zoila Martinez is actively trying to find a vehicle large enough to transport once again new generations of Garifuna girls to an appointed place where they may be taught not only the Garifuna music and dances, but also, the stories of their people. "These must be passed on to others" she says. "We cannot let this die." Doña Maria Elena adds "the difficult thing is getting everyone together to practice. But for that, the only thing we need is our hearts. We have to do these things with our heart." If the right form of transportation materializes, Doña Zoila fervently hopes to have a new group of girls that will sing and dance to their Garifuna songs in church by Sunday, April 12, 2009; the anniversary of when the Garifuna people first landed on the island of Roatan in Honduras. She prays for this every day.