Traditional Garifuna Music and Dance  
On the third day of the  celebration of Garifuna Arts & Culture Appreciation Month in NYC,   we continue with a description of Traditional Garifuna Music and Dance, as described in the  UNESCO Candidature Standard Form Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity submitted by the National Garifuna Council of Belize.


 As was indicated earlier, there is a very close relationship between music and dance. For every type of dance there is a corresponding type of song, which bears the same name. In addition, it is generally felt that the dancer should always, whenever possible, join in the singing because only so can the best performance possible be assured. In other words, the performance is usually at a higher level when the dancer knows and likes the song and can join in the singing - singing for his feet, as it is referred to.


The hng�h�ng�, punta, gunjai and the paranda are what can be characterized as ordinary dances as the dancer has the usual relationship with the musician. The dancer listens to the music and dances accordingly. Another set, namely the sambai, the chumba and the Wanaragua are unusual in that the dancer dictates the patterns that the lead drummer (primero drummer) plays. In these dances the drummer has to have a clear view of the dancer's feet and translates the movements into sound.




I hesitate to speak of composers or ownership in relation to Garifuna songs. This is so because songs are generally Ichah�war�g�ti, i.e., just given (by the spirits) rather than composed or written. A song comes into existence without any effort on the part of the person who will often speak of having learnt it instead of taking credit for its coming into being. Also relevant is the fact that an expression like "John's song" can have any of several possible meanings including the following.


1. The song was given (by the spirits) to John.

2. The song is a favorite of John's.

3. The song is about John.

4. Whenever I hear it I think of John.

5. John was allowed to take credit for the song (by the one to whom it was given)


As one can imagine, copyright is never an issue in traditional Garifuna society as the songs are in effect collective cultural property which everyone is free to use at any time. This cannot be said for Punta Rock, which belongs to another world and is, therefore, subject to another set of rules. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to keep the two worlds separate and distinct because Punta Rock has always been nourished by traditional punta and paranda, and Punta Rock artists routinely draw their material from the traditional pool and simply repackage and embellish it for international consumption. Songs serve a multiplicity of functions in Traditional Garifuna life apart from their obvious use in work, ritual and in play. These include but are not limited to a) social control b) social comment c) personal and emotional release d) the recording of historical events and e) the affirmation of values.


Garifuna dances were not originally intended for a stage where the audience sits in an auditorium and the dancers perform on a stage. In their natural cultural context there is no distinction between audience and performer. In a ninth night wake, for instance, we find the drummers with the main singers standing behind them and the other people standing around so that there is a circular space available for dancing in front of the drummers. There is certain fluidity so that the individual can participate to the extent that he or she wishes. 


Everyone can join in the singing, the two dancers in the ring keep changing as the man or the woman steps back into the crowd and is replaced by another who may have just been standing around or sporadically joining in the singing as the songs that he or she likes are sung. The Waribagabaga Dance Group was the first dance troupe organized to seriously take on the challenge of arranging the dances and perform them on a stage without doing violence to the dances and the culture. They set a very high standard that was enhanced by international exposure, which also demonstrated the universal appeal of Garifuna music and dance and inspired the formation of similar groups in other parts of the country and the neighboring countries. One such group is the Ballet Folkloriko Garifuna de Honduras, a national dance company in Honduras. With financial support from government and foreign technical assistance that group has managed to reach a very high level in choreography and performance and is very much in demand in festivals around the world.  

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