Garifuna Musical Instruments

 On the fourth day of the  celebration of Garifuna Arts & Culture Appreciation Month in NYC,   we continue with a description of Traditional Garifuna Musical Instruments, 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.


 Garifuna musical instruments are quite basic. These traditionally consist of drums, maracas and, more recently, the guitar and the turtle shells.




The drums are the primary musical instruments of the Garifuna and these are used for ritual as well as secular purposes. The drums are normally are made out of hollowed sections of tree trunks with antelope skin stretched tightly across one end and held in place by rope that can be stretched to tighten the instrument by means of wooden pins. Originally, the drums were hollowed out by means of controlled burning. Later, gouges were used for that purpose so the drums could be made more quickly and with less chance of failure. Today, the gouge continues to be the standard means of digging out the inside portion of the logs to make the drum but Austin Rodriguez, a drum maker in Dangriga has perfected a system that makes use of the chain saw. His system is so efficient that he can now make several drums in one day and in addition produce several drums from the same log that formerly would have only yielded one such instrument.


Two drums are normally used for secular music. These typically consist of a base drum that is usually the larger of the two and provides the basic rhythm. This drum is called the segunda. The smaller drum provides the embellishments and normally require a greater level of skill on the part of the drummer who in certain of the dances may have to improvise in order to rise to the demands of the dancer in dances like the wanaragua, the chumba and the sambai. This smaller drum is called the primero. There are times when two or more segunda drums are utilized but the use of more than one primero would be awkward if not impractical


There is a third type of drum. This is generally larger than the segunda and reserved for use in sacred music associated with rituals like the dg. Three such drums are played at the same time with the one in the center, called the lanigi Garawoun (the heart of the drum) taking the lead.


The Maracas


The maracas are rattles that are played in pairs. To make these the insides of two whole calabashes are extracted and replaced with the mature seeds of a plant called weinwein. A stick to be used as a handle is then forced through holes that had been made at the top and the bottom of each of the gourds.


The maracas are used for certain types of secular and sacred music but there are other types with which they are never associated.


These rattles may also have religious significance in that each buyei (Garifuna spiritual leader) invariably has at least one pair of large rattles that can be seen as a badge of his or her office. This maraga, as it is called, is used by the buyei in healing ceremonies like the dg or the chug.


The Guitar


It is perhaps safe to assume that the acoustic guitar was borrowed into Garifuna music after the exile to Central America some time during the last two hundred years. It is here that Hispanic influence manifests itself in Garifuna music. The association of the guitar with traditional Garifuna music is limited to the paranda, a name which itself is obviously of Spanish origin. More recently, with the emergence of Punta Rock, the guitar has joined other modern instruments as Garifuna lyrics and rhythms were repackaged for wider national, regional and international consumption.


The Turtle Shells


Minor instruments like conch shells, cow bells, and the mouth organ have long had a peripheral place in traditional Garifuna music as there was always the need for improvisation and adaptability as our musicians strived to meet the musical needs of the community. What is perhaps ironic is that it was in responding to the need to improvise that the turtle shells found their way into Garifuna music in Pen Cayetano's art studio at Moho Street in Dangriga in 1982 and it can be said that it was that happy accident that gave rise to the Turtle Shell Band and brought about the latest development in Garifuna music in the form of Punta Rock.

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