Global Hit - Andy Palacio

We learned this weekend of the death of Andy Palacio. If you're a regular listener of this show, you probably recognize his name. We spoke with Andy Palacio a few years back about the music of the Garifuna people of Belize. And last year, we named Palacio's CD "Watina" one of our top picks for 2007. Many critics around the globe did the same. Last week, Palacio suffered a stroke and a heart attack. He was just 47. The World's Marco Werman has this appreciation.

Andy Palacio in Belize: photo: Marco WermanAndy Palacio in Belize: photo: Marco Werman

The headline in today's New York Times obituary reads "Andy Palacio: Saved Garifuna Music." It neatly sums up what this cultural advocate was able to achieve in his tragically short life.

And even early in his career, when Andy Palacio was focused on party music, he always kept the sound of his Garifuna people in his back pocket.

This song, "Til da mawnin'," captured the fun-loving spirit of Palacio's Punta Rock music in the 80s and early 90s. But Palacio told me last year that when he was much younger, he witnessed something that he never forgot. As a high schooler in Belize, he had taken part in a project in neighboring Nicaragua teaching the Garifuna language.

Andy Palacio rocking the party in Dangriga at Punta Fest in November 2003: photo: Marco WermanAndy Palacio rocking the party in Dangriga at Punta Fest in November 2003: photo: Marco Werman

�I was only 19 at the time, and nobody of my age group knew a single sentence in our language. There were only a handful of elders able to communicate with me the way. I would with my mother at home. I decided to compose songs more in my own language, and to express myself in Garifuna in a way that would be appealing to my own generation and to generations that would be coming after me.�

Palacio's Punta Rock dance sound was his first creation of Garifuna music. But then he dug deeper down to the African roots of the culture. Palacio worked closely with record producer Ivan Duran. And last year, they released the critically acclaimed album "watina." It featured such introspective songs like Amunegu.

�Amunegu expresses concern for the future of Garifuna culture. Basically asking questions such as who will speak Garifuna with me in times to come. Who will perform the dugun, which is the healing ceremony, with us in times to come. And just asking questions like these, and offering the advice that the time has come to teach and for these things to be learned. Lest we lose them altogether.�

That may not sound like a winning approach to creating pop music. But Palacio found that this gently modernized exploration of his roots music charmed Belizeans, especially his own Garifuna people. Dezree Arana is from Dangriga, Belize, the heart of Garifuna culture. Now she herself is singing this music.

And, as she told me after a recent performance, she is respected for picking up Palacio's lead in keeping Garifuna culture alive.

�Young Garifuna women, children, even older folks than I am, they're so pleased to know that we could come out and do stuff like this and it's a pleasure and it makes me feel very big.�

The Garifuna have a fabled history going back to the 18th century. They were African slaves who rebelled against their masters on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean.
When the rebellion was quashed, British colonizers eventually exiled the Garifuna to the Central American mainland.

Today, the Garifuna number less than a quarter million in the whole world.

That includes their homeland along the coast of central Belize, as well as Honduras, Nicaragua, and New York City where many have settled.

Last October in Spain, Andy Palacio and producer Ivan Duran shared the 2007 award from WOMEX, the World Music Expo.

In typical modesty, Palacio downplayed his efforts to preserve Garifuna culture.

�The true heroes behind our music are really those first Garifuna fighters who in the 18th century on the island of Yurume, St. Vincent, stood up against slavery, colonization, and cultural domination.�

To his credit, Andy Palacio will be seen as the force that kept the Garifuna past from drifting away from its present and future. He showed the enormous difference one person can make. Some biologists save endangered species. Some libraries save rare books. Andy Palacio saved the songs of his people, and in the process gave their culture back to them.

For The World, I'm Marco Werman.

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