The world music community suffered a tremendous loss this week as Belizean singer Andy Palacio passed away due to respiratory failure, following a major heart attack and stroke at age 47.
Palacio was Garifuna, a culture descended from shipwrecked slaves who settled and mixed with Carib natives along the eastern coast and islands of Central America. An established musician in a variety of genres, he dedicated the latter part of his life to preserving the traditions of his dying culture through its music. Released on Charlotte-based world music label Cumbancha, his final album, Wátina was an all-star celebration of Garifuna roots music, garnering global acclaim.
Palacio toured the US in support of the album and I had the pleasure of interviewing him in preview of his performance at Higher Ground's Showcase Lounge in August 2007. Still relatively new to Seven Days, the interview was one of my first for the paper — my second, if I'm not mistaken. Despite English not being Palacio's first language, the inherent technical difficulties of speaking to someone in Belize on a cell phone as well as my then-novice foibles, the singer was as accommodating and pleasant as any I've spoken with since, and likely guided me through the conversation more than I did him.
What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.
SEVEN DAYS: You got your start playing Punta music and were very successful in Belize prior to focusing on Garifuna roots music. Has that helped raise the profile of what you’re doing now?
ANDY PALACIO: Absolutely. I had actually made attempts earlier to expose the diversity of Garifuna music in other media. In 1999 we did The Paranda Project. It was an attempt to document an art form that was in a way endangered because the main practitioners were all from an older generation.
SD: How has Wátina help to re-invigorate younger generations’ interest in Garifuna culture?
AP: If you look at it as an ethnic minority, the similarities between us and other ethnic minorities come into sharp focus. It takes a toll on one’s self-esteem, especially for this younger generation. We have to come up with something that is able to boost that sense of pride and have a positive effect on the culture. Wátina has had the effect of reconnecting that generation with their roots.
SD: You brought in Garifuna artists from all over the Caribbean and Latin America to record Wátina. It seems this approach is an apt reflection of the origins of the culture itself.
AP: Garifuna has been characterized as a nation across borders, and that’s just the experience we live. My Garifuna brothers and sisters come from Honduras and Guatemala and all over the Caribbean and Latin America. Our culture supersedes our colonial or political differences. So that had to be reflected in this collaboration. That was very important.
SD: The word "wátina" is Garifuna for “I call out.” Is this a call to the world or more specifically to the Garifuna people?
AP: On one level it is a reflection of the difficulty of ordinary man trying to get from point A to point B. Wanting a ride, so to speak. Or sympathy from everybody passing by. On another level it’s about the Garifuna people shouting out to the world, saying, “We are here and we have a culture to share. Don’t pass us by."
SD: Your early influences were fairly conventional North American and reggae music. How did your interest veer towards what you’re doing now?
AP: It was at the point where I recognized the threat to our culture. In the early ’80s, my commitment changed to prevent the disconnect of the Garifuna people from their culture and focus more on what was ours than what was imported from abroad.
SD: What would you like American audiences to take away from your performances?
AP: I think it would have to be the discovery of a component of the Americas that is totally new. It’s easy to assume that all people of African descent in the Americas have been enslaved. Or that all people of African descent speak the language of one of the colonizing countries. But to find that, somewhere within all of that, that we exist with our unique characteristics should be interesting to people.
Andy Palacio was an iconic figure, in Belize and beyond, and was instrumental in the ongoing preservation of Garifuna culture. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him and his music.
For more on Andy, the Garifuna and Wátina, watch this:
And finally, I received this letter from Cumbancha founder, Jacob Edgar. It contains information about funeral services and planned tributes to the fallen singer, as well as links to obituaries published throughout the world.
News about the untimely demise of Andy Palacio has been spreading across the world, and we have received hundreds of messages offering condolences and support. Please feel free to post your own thoughts and memories about Andy at Andy's MySpace page and on the Cumbancha blog. The messages coming in from all corners of the globe have been very moving.
A number of major media outlets have published or will be publishing obituaries, including the New York Times, Reuters, El Pais, CBC Canada, Chicago Sun-Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, Liberation, among others. I have posted links to some of these at the bottom of this note.
People in Belize and Garifuna people everywhere have been mourning Andy's death. On Friday morning, there will be a tribute concert at the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts in Belize City. The funeral ceremony will take place on Saturday in Barranco, the small village in southern Belize where Andy was born and raised. His body will be brought by boat (weather permitting) to Barranco, where there will be a traditional Garifuna wake as well as a Catholic service.
A foundation is being established in Andy's name, where people can make donations. Information will be posted on the MySpace page and Cumbancha blog as soon as that becomes available.
A major tour was in the works for Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective with special guests Umalali starting in April and running through the fall. After discussing it with the musicians and agents, everyone agrees that Andy would have wanted this tour to continue, in tribute to his memory and to further his goal of exposing Garifuna music and culture to the world. A number of rising stars of Garifuna music will be added to the lineup, and we are confident that this tour will be a magical tribute to Andy and his work.
ANDY PALACIO OBITUARIES: