Belize Music – The Garifunas

garifuna teen drummers belize
Garifuna drummer teens at Dangriga, Southern Belize.

The Garifuna culture in Belize displays many influences of its African heritage, and this is extremely evident when comparing their music with the indigenous music of the African societies from which their ancestors originated. According to one source, most of the slaves brought to the Caribbean were taken from the Niger and cross Delta regions in the Blight of Benin (present-day Nigeria) in West Africa, and from further south in the Congo and Angola (A History of Belize 5th chapter 1). Much like the music of these areas, the Garifuna style of music relies heavily on call and response patterns. These patterns are less overlapping than many traditional ones found in Africa, but none the less in Belize music the Garifunas leader-chorus organization is very consistent with those of African styles.

The Drums

The importance of the drum in Garifuna music is another similarity to their African influence. Garifuna music relies heavily on the drum, and in many instances their music is dictated by it. Often times a particular drum style will call for two drummers (except for sacred music, which usually uses three). Typically, one drummer will play a fixed, consistent pattern. This drummer is usually called the segundo player.

Another more intricate part made up of cross-patterns is normally played by the primero player. The drums of the Garifuna are usually made of hardwoods that are uniformly shaped and carved out in the centers.

The ends of the drums, whether it be one or two, are covered with skins from the peccary, deer, or sheep. These drums are always played with the hands, and some drummers have been known to wrap metal wires around the drumheads to give them a snare-like sound. Some musicians accompany the drums with gourd shakers called sisira, and even instruments like the guitar, flute, and violin have been adopted from early French, English, and Spanish folk music, as well as, Jamaican and Haitian Afro-Caribbean styles.

Song And Dance

In accompaniment to their music traditions lie the Garifuna songs and dance styles, which are an integral part of their culture. These songs and dance styles that are performed by the Garifuna display a wide range of subjects like work songs, social dances, and ancestral traditions. Some of the work songs include the Eremwu Eu, which is sung by the women as they prepare to make cassava bread, and the Laremuna Wadauman, a song men regularly sing when collectively working together.

As for songs and dances in the social context, pieces like the Gunchei are quite customary. In this dance style the men take turns dancing with each woman. Another very popular dance style performed by the Garifuna in Belize is called Punta Music. According to one Garifuna author this style is, the most popular dance performed at wakes, holidays, parties, and other social events (S. Cayetano, 2). It consists of different couples attempting to dance more stylistically and seductively with hip movements than their other competitors. While most of these songs and dances is more modern in origin, the Garifuna still maintain many traditional pieces.

Contributed by Garifuna Historian Benjamin E. Palacio.

Andy Palacio

Andy Palacio was one of the most popular musicians in Belize – and a serious music and cultural archivist committed to preserving his unique Garifuna culture.

Long a leading proponent of Garifuna popular music and an advocate for the preservation of the Garifuna history, language and traditions, Palacio undertook a new and ambitious direction with the formation of the Garifuna Music Collective.

The Collective unites elder statesmen such as legendary Garifuna composer Paul Nabor, with Paranda star Aurelio Martinez from Honduras.

Rather then focusing on danceable styles like punta rock, the Collective explores the more soulful side of Belize Garifuna music, such as the Latin-influenced paranda, the semi-sacred hüngü- hüngü, as well as the punta and gunjei rhythms.

Andy Palacio was not only known as the best musician of his generation, but also an advocate for Garifuna culture. “Watina,” his album with the Garifuna Collective and his final work, was critically acclaimed as one of the best world music releases of 2007.

Andy’s roots lie in the  southernmost village of Barranco in the Toledo District. As a child and young man Andy was immersed in the traditional music and song of his ancestors, and exposed to the music of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras via radio. Editor Manolo Romero recalls meeting Andy in 1988 when he (Andy) was still a high school teacher. “On a visit to Nicaragua with a literacy project, he met an elderly man who was one of the last Garifuna speakers in Nicaragua. Fearing that the Garifuna culture in Belize would have been headed down the same road, he decided to devote his life to preserving the Garifuna language and culture at home.

“In 1987 Andy Palacio obtained a scholarship from the British Cultural Partnership Ltd., a community arts foundation and after six months returned to Belize with professional experience, a donated tape recorder and music mixer. He began traveling to Garifuna villages throughout the countryside recording and documenting traditional music and drumming. He visited us at the Government Information Service and persuaded me to write a small piece on his project in the magazine I edited at the time, The New Belize. He eventually launched a music program on Radio Belize, and this eventually evolved his career into a that of a full time musician. He passed away at age 47 on Saturday 17 January 2008.”

Andy Palacio received the Order of Meritorious Service in 2007 and that same year was named UNESCO Artist For Peace. He is buried at a simple family plot in Barranco Village next to his parents.

The John Canoe

One of the most famous of traditional dances is the John Canoe or Jankunu, also known as the Wanaragua. This dance, originated in times of slavery.


The participants will dress up in white or pink masks and venture from house to house in order to receive food and drinks from that household.

The dance is said to have been started by both the Creole and Garifuna cultures in Belize during encounters at mahogany camps where they were forced to work, and the intent was to mock their English slave owners.

This cultural expression is known variously as Jonkonnu, Junkanoo Jonkanoo, Jankunu, John Canoe or Johnkankus and is is a musical street masquerade, believed to be of West African origin, which occurs in many towns across the Caribbean. In Belize it is held on Christmas and New Years Day, Garifuna Settlement Day and on special Garifuna cultural events.