Monday, January 21, 2008

Remembering Andy Palacio

In the fall of 2003, I lived in Guatemala for a time while covering that country’s presidential election. My work reporting on the electoral contest between former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his opponent Óscar Berger, and the legacy of the country’s terrible 36-year civil war, took me to many parts of this often almost surreally beautiful place.

In Guatemala City, I spoke with people like Jose Ruben Zamora, editor of Guatemala's El Periodico newspaper, and listened to his struggle trying to function as an independent, investigative journalist in a country where clandestine forces attacked him physically and regularly threatened him with death. I traveled through the breathtaking but tragic Triángulo Ixil, the homeland of the Ixil Maya nestled in the Cuchumatanes mountains, interviewing Indians and religious officials about their experiences during the war and during the then-current rule of Rios Montt’s political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG). I ventured into the lush jungle of the Petén to interview former members of the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC) that Rios Montt had set up in the 1980s as a kind of civilian paramilitary against the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP) rebels, as if the military’s scorched-earth attacks against Mayan civilians weren’t enough.

But I also saw the pleasant side of Guatemala, and one of the most lovely parts began with a voyage down the Rio Dulce on a small boat, fecund vegetation hanging from the opposite banks, on my way to a small town named Livingston on the Bahía de Amatique. Quite different from the indigenous and mestizo culture that dominated elsewhere in Guatemala, Livingston was in fact home to the Garifuna, the descendants of Amerindian tribes and African slaves who live scattered in coastal settlements in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua, speaking an Arawakan language as well as an Spanish and often Caribbean-accented English.

When my boat pulled up to the jetty, a dreadlocked old man threw a rope around it and said “You don’t have to worry no more. You’re in Africa now.” I spent quite a few days in Livingston, decompressing from several stressful weeks reporting, and I got to see a bit of the Garifuna and their culture, which often included pumping Garifuna-language music blaring out of the speakers at hotels and restaurants. It was a constant echo in the background when I would stop to chat with the matrons sipping lemonade at the Café Bar Ubougarifuna.

Many Garifuna worry that their culture - the unique language, the music, the history, the very way of life - is disappearing amidst the influence of other Caribbean styles and, particularly, North American hip-hop culture.

No one in recent years did more to promote Garifuna culture than the songwriter, singer and guitarist Andy Palacio. Born in a small coastal village in Belize in 1960, Palacio defiantly sang the vast majority of his songs in Garifuna, and utilized distinctive Garifuna rhythms in his compositions. Named a UNESCO Artist for Peace last year, he also released an outstanding album, called Wátina (which means “I called out” in Garifuna) in 2007. Buoyant, uplifting, yet at the same time, thoughtful, music. Palacio’s recent success has helped spur a revival of interest in preserving Garifuna culture, not least of all among the Garifuna themselves.

Andy Palacio passed away, far too young, of a massive stroke and heart attack on Saturday evening. An eloquent spokesman and passionate artistic champion for an often-marginalized people, Andy Palacio’s loss will be deeply felt, but all his work at promoting and helping to preserve Garifuna culture will not be forgotten, not least of all by this journalist. When my African sojourn finishes this fall, it may very well be time to visit with the Garifuna again, and listen closely to what they and their music have to tell the world.

Ayo, Andy Palacio.


Babette said...

You are a brave journalist. There is some sort of award for that, I am sure, and you should have it.

I have been to Livingston. I adored it. Thank you for introducing this muscian - belatedly, alas.....

And Godspeed to you as you travel.

Unknown said...

Michael, many thanks for sharing Andy with your readers. I'd like to point them towards our blog where there are posts about his awards in 2007 and his tragic passing in January.

Andy's fall 08 tour of the US and Europe is now becoming a tribute concert with members of his band "the Garifuna Collective" and Umalali: The Garifuna Women's Project.

Tour Dates are available on andy's myspace page.

All the best,
Simeon Chapin
(andy's record label)