Garifuna culture in Belize

Garifuna Settlement Day was created by Belizean civil rights activist Thomas Vincent Ramos, as far back as 1941, 40 years before the country gained independence. Still celebrated by Belize’s minority Garifuna population every year on 19th November, not only is this a wonderful time to visit the country climate-wise, you have hit the jackpot culture-wise too with Garifuna cultural holidays in Belize, particularly in southern Belize’s Toledo District, where Garifuna villages open up their doors and villagers their lungs with singing and dancing from dawn ‘til dusk.
Music is heard throughout the Garifuna villages of Belize all year round, however, as drumming and dancing is central to this fascinating people’s culture. A culture with multiethnic heritage, the Garinagu are defined as mixed race descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib and Arawak people, and make up four percent of Belize’s population, their homesteads spread around the towns of Dangriga, and Punta Gorda and villages of Hopkins, Seine Bight, Libertad and Barranco. They are direct descendants of a group of enslaved Africans who escaped two shipwrecked Spanish slave ships in 1635.

Not only is music food for the Garifuna soul, their language – a French and Arawak mix – is music to our ears too. In fact, their language, dance and music have been officially recognized as a ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO since 2001.
The most popular dance form is punta, with a lot of hip movements going on, accompanied by drumming, a prolific aspect of Garifuna music. Drums are often for sale in Garifuna towns, the main type being the segunda, made from hollowed out logs with antelope skin stretched across the top. Tourists will look on in awe at the punta pulse at village beach parties, until a rum cocktail or two oils their hips and ups their courage levels to join in. There is also a slower dance to learn: the paranda, where the guitar is strummed sensually, the hips slow down and the Garifuna finally give a chance to catch up with the carousing. On Garifuna Settlement Day the dancing certainly does go on until dawn, giving a whole new meaning to civil rights demonstrations. Go Garifuna.

In Garifuna culture, music pervades every aspect of life, some types of songs associated with work and others with play, but it also serves a role in prayer and ritual. Both of which, in turn, play a central part in Garifuna life, the people being spiritually led both by Roman Catholic priests and, more traditionally, by shaman, known as buyei.
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Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rick Goldman] [Garifuna drums: Belize tourist board] [Punta dance: Ken Mayer]