Andy Palacio (December 2, 1960 – January 19, 2008) is arguably the most famous contemporary Garifuna musician. Born in Belize, Palacio is a member of the Garifuna people, a group descended from West African slaves brought to the Caribbean in the 17th century. With a present day population of roughly half a million, the Garifuna live primarily in Central America. While in his 20s, Palacio recognized how endangered Garifuna culture was, and decided to work to help preserve his native culture and language. He became a star in Belize playing Punta rock, a hybrid of traditional music and 80s synthesized dance music. Later, Palacio decided to move away from the Punta movement and their use of electronic instruments for more traditional sounds. Palacio released Keimoun (Beat On) on Stonetree records in 1995, a homegrown Belize label. The album helped him cement his stardom in Belize and reach an international audience. He followed with Til Da Mawnin in the 1997 and released the acclaimed album Watina in 2007. Palacio died of a stroke in 2008 at the age of 47.
Though he died too young at 47 in 2008, Andy Palacio remains the most famous contemporary Garifuna musician. His people have a fascinating story that crosses continents and centuries. The story of the Garifuna people is thought to have begun around 1635 when a Spanish slave ship carrying kidnapped Africans from present day Nigeria shipwrecked near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The slaves swam to shore and lived among the island's native Carib population (though not without extensive violence according to oral histories of European explorers), creating a new culture mixing the heritages of both peoples. The island remained free of European colonization until 1796 when the British conquered it, and displaced the Garifuna to an island off the coast of Honduras, from where they eventually settled in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Nicaragua.
As an African descended group who were never enslaved, the Garifuna retain many aspects of West African style in their music including a heavy reliance on percussion and call and response structures. Belize-born Andy Palacio made it his life mission to help preserve his native Garifuna culture and keep it alive and vibrant through music.
The last album released before his death, 2007's Watina is sung entirely in the Garifuna language, and grounded in the culture's traditions. The songs mix contemplative with bright and upbeat, reflecting the sunny disposition of both West African music and music found throughout the Caribbean. Title track “Watina” features shuffling percussion and rhythm guitar that wouldn't feel out place on a Cuban street corner. A hip-swinging bass line mingles with stirring vocals and glittering lead guitar to form a whole that just feels incredibly full of life. "Weyu Larigi Weyu (Day by Day)" is another highlight. Borrowing a rhythm from traditional healing ceremonies, the song is a prayer for God's blessing, and the yearning male/female call and response chorus is spine tingling. Lighthearted “Lidan Aban (Together)” draws influence from that most musically influential of Caribbean islands, Jamaica. Mixing sunny, reggae-style electric guitar upstrokes with a swarm of festive drums, Palacio's voice is radiant as he trades merry lines with a female chorus.
At the end of the day, Watina is an album that's exhilaratingly full of life, the work of a large group of musicians that drip passion. If intercultural, cross-global mixing is a reality in today's flat, globalized world, then learn from the masters, these guys have been doing it for nearly 400 years. Andy Palacio's passing is tragic, but the world is a brighter place with his musical legacy.