lunes, 26 de enero de 2015

Conversations with the Garifuna Buyei Yaya about where do Garifuna Songs Come From?

Conversations with the Garifuna Buyei Yaya about where do Garifuna Songs Come From?

By Wendy Griffin January 2015

The Garifunas are amazing for the sheer quantity of music written in the Garifuna language. A dugu ceremony lasts two nights and three days and most of that time is spent singing and dancing day and night. A Garifuna wake or end of mourning ceremony (fin de novenario, similar to the Southern African custom of “final prayers”) lasts from just after dark until dawn and much of that time is spent sing and dancing to punta and parranda songs.

The all night celebrations known as fedu (Celebration) when Garifuna women’s clubs sing hunguhungu songs generally start at 10 pm and end at 6 am.  All of these songs are memorized, as most do not yet have a written form. It is almost impossible to put the polyrhythmic Garifuna music in scores as there is not a set way to play any songs—it is done extemporeneously by the drummers and the other musicians, sometimes in direct response to the way one of the dancers is dancing. There are at least 30 different genres of traditional Garifuna music, with a genre like punta/banguity being determined by the rhythm, the dance that goes with it, and the situation in which it is danced.

Some Garifuna composers like the now deceased Victor Bermudez of Cusuna, the breakman on the Truxillo Railroad,  are known to have composed over 200 songs in Garifuna. It turns out that where do Garifuna songs come from is an interesting topic. One of the people I discussed it with Yaya, my buyei friend who during her life composed 5 songs. She mostly composed in the Punta and female Parranda genres.  Traditional Punta music is a song sung by women, while for comercial Garifuna Punta Rock music, most of the recorded and thus more famous singers have been Garifuna men. 

The first song Yaya composed was on the occassion of the opening of the highway between Trujillo and the Garifuna communities of Santa Fe, San Antonio and on to Guadelupe, west of Trujillo. Until this road was opened, Garifunas would walk along the beach to these communities, sometimes walking the 15 km to Guadelupe and back in a single day like Garifuna teacher Justa Silveria Gotay who “commuted” every day for years in this way to her job in Guadelupe from her home in Barrio Cristales, Trujillo.

While in the United States we tend to take roads for granted, the fight for getting the road opened between Guadelupe and Trujillo was so important to the Garifunas that it is a central theme in the half Garifuna half Spanish play Louvagabu (The Other Side Far Away), performed by the Garifuna Theatre group “Superacion Guadelupe” (Guadelupe Getting Ahead) in which corruption, and issues related to money being sent home by postman on foot to grandmothers who could not read prove some interesting comic relief.

Yaya saw all the fancy cars that Honduran government officials drove to the inauguration event and she was amazed at all the number of cars, and in the song she composed she wonders if they could all be for her.  Dr. Joseph Palacios, a Garifuna anthropologist at the University of West Indies, Belize, writes in an article in “Black Carib-Garifuna” that if we collected all of the Garifuna songs we could probably document the whole history of the Garifunas.

I would not be surprised. Hurricane Fifi over 30 years ago is still remembered in song. I do not know if the Garifuna song collected by the National Garifuna Folkloric Ballet “La Balsa” (The Raft) refers to the Garifunas travelling by raft between the island of Roatan and the Honduran  mainland which happened in 1797 when they first arrived in Trujillo, or if it is even older and refers to escaping in the night from Barbados on a raft to reach the Island of Saint Vincent and to refuge among the Black Carib Indians of St.Vincent, the ancestors of the modern Garifuna.

The Garifuna Gunchei songs like “Generali”  (The General) Armando Crisanto Melendez, the Garifuna Director of the National Garifuna Folklorica Ballet originally from San Juan, Tela, Honduras,  told me refer to a victory of the Garifunas while on the island of St. Vincent against the French, whom they successfully defended the Island against. This was prior to losing the Second Carib War to the English in 1796 and the death of Chief Satuye, which led to their exile to Honduras in 1797. 

Another song Yaya composed was when she was called “bruja” a witch.  She was called a “bruja” because she is a female shaman called “buyei” in Garifuna, but in the Garifuna culture witches and buyeis serve different functions. So she composed the Garifuna song that even though people call me “bruja” I am walking to my fields to grow yams and “chatas” (Saban bananas, called charter bananas in Bay Islands English) for my grandchildren.   

One of the reasons people report that they do not want to be called as buyeis is that other people will point to them (señalar) and talk about them. Yaya still said after 50 years of being a buyei, “I do not like this work. I never wanted to be a buyei. But the spirits said they would take me if I did not accept, so I accepted.”   This is not unusual among shaman worldwide that they do not seek to become shaman, but rather they are called, and they have to accept. Other Garifuna women buyeis I have talked to also said they accepted after becoming sick, because they were told if they did not accept the spirits would take them and they would die.

Another song Yaya wrote was about when some Ladinos from Olancho a number of hours away by bus and days travel by foot or mule came to visit her and ask for medicine. She was amazed that people had come from so far to ask her for medicine and in the song “Olanchuna” wonders how could people from so far away as Olancho know that she made medicine.

A few years ago she rewrote the song and now it says people came from Olancho asking for medicine, there is a gringa who tells people I know how to make medicine. That is the song she wrote about our work together after the book she helped me with “Los Garifunas de Honduras” and the Honduras This Week newspaper articles “Conversations with a Garifuna Shaman: Doña Clara”  had already been published. She could not read in any language, but she had copies of the articles and the book, knew what they said, and had seen her picture in them. Apparantly these moved her to write a song about working with me.

Yaya also noted the trend of the high level of AIDS being reported in the Garífuna communities.  It was so high that she thought it unbelievable. So she wrote a song about that when you ask what illness someone had,  there were no more headaches, no more fevers, people only say That person has AIDS (SIDA in Spanish).
The last song she composed around age 91 caused a small family problem.  Her son Polo’s (short for Hipolito) daughter had had a new baby boy.  She wrote a song in honor of this greatgrandson, saying that he would be a Garifuna of “hacha and azadón” (axe and hoe).  This is a standard Garifuna expression to describe the old time Garifunas where Garifuna men cut down the forest for the women to have somewhere to grow, and the hoe was used to control weeds.  Archaeological remains from the island of St. Vincent in the Yale Peabody Museum collection confirm that the Caribs and Arawak ancestors of the Garifunas were indeed people of “hacha y azadón” with Stone axes and Seashell or Stone hoes.

The Garifuna men could use the axes to fell large trees to make the dug out canoes to travel between the islands, and between the Islands and the mainland. The travel pattern of men being away for six months planting and hunting recorded in Yaya’s story “La Comadrona” (The Midwife) may reflect that the men of St. Vincent which only had a little bit of land and almost no wild animals, spent significant time of the mainland of South America where they farmed and hunted to make up for the fact that St. Vincent was so small and had limited natural resources.  This story like many Garifuna stories, has a sung chorus that is repeated several times during the story. In West Africa, there are stories with choruses and stories without choruses. Garifuna women know traditional stories, called Uragá, but they never are chosen to tell them at wakes, which is when Garifuna men called “uraguistas” tell traditional stories. Yaya would sometimes enjoy sitting at home with her youngest grandaughter who was about 7 and tell her and Yaya’s daughter telling traditional Garifuna stories.  

Yaya sang the song she composed on the occassion of her new greatgrandson for me with her son Polo present.  Instead of being happy that his mother had composed a song for his new grandson, he was angry. “This grandson will not grow up to be a Garifuna of “hacha y azadón”, he will grow up to be a Garifuna of “saco y corbata” (suit and tie)”, Polo said.  After that she never composed another song and I gave up the Project of trying to tape record Garifuna music, which I had done thinking her children would like to have a recording of the songs their mother wrote. She is still alive, now about 95, but she no longer sings and she is bedridden and dying. The recording would not have meant that much to her grandchildren, none of whom speak Garifuna except the youngest Domini who has learned some Garifuna in bilingual education classes in the Socorro Sorrel School in Barrio Cristales,Trujillo.

I asked Yaya how she learned the songs for the dugu and chugu ceremonies. She said the ancestors tell her what songs they want to be sung.  Sometimes they would give her whole new songs to be sung. Abeimajani  (the songs of older women) and Arumajani (the songs of older men), both sung without drums, are thought to be particularly helpful medicinally. 

Singing these songs are a major part of curing people of Sting Ray (raya) stings. I have heard even of White people, like American Kim Brinkley’s daughter who grew up in Trujillo as her grandmother owned the Villa Brinkely Hotel, being cured of Sting ray stings by singing abeimajani to them on them on the beach, so apparantly they work even if you don’t believe. Both a certain number of Abeimajani and Arumajani songs are sung at a dugu or a chugu. One of the older male drummers in Trujillo, known as Calderón, who appears on the cover of Los Garifunas de Honduras drumming, told me he had written an Arumajani song in Garifuna about a fishing trip he had been on, and sang it for me.

When Garifuna men fished, they often took a son or a grandson with them. One of the few Garifuna men in Trujillo who knew arumajani songs was known by the nickname “Subalterno” (subaltern). While fishing his grandfather would lead the arumajani song, and Subalterno would be expected to sing the chorus part. His grandfather also taught him Uraga or traditional stories as they fished. To the extent that Garifuna young men do not fish, they do not have the time to learn and practice these songs and stories, the same with Young women who no longer go to farm with their mothers or grandmothers.   Older Garifuna men as they worked on crafts on the beach, also used to sing and compose songs, and sing them to their Friends who came looking for a breeze on the beach. They would also discuss community business and family problems. In the US we go to therapists, pay city council people and social workers, and composers to do these tasks. The Garifuna men in the past were not, as Ladinos seemed to perceive, just idling away on the beach while their wives worked. Since Garifuna men traditionally fished from 2 am to 10 am, to be able to bring the fish in time for lunch, they had their afternoons free, and they usually did not fish every day which left them with the time to make the majority of Garifuna crafts.

If songs are taught by the ancestors, usually they are revealed in dreams. Not only buyeis receive songs in dreams. For example, Profesor Santos Angel Batíz had a personal Project to collect Máscaro or Wanaragua songs. He had collected about 100 songs. In his dreams, an ancestor appeared and dictated to him another Wanaragua (Dance of the Warriors) song. He told the ancestor in the dream, “I do not have the money to publish this song.”  Usually Garifuna songs are not published, but rather you get a group of your friends together or go to the dance club and sing the song, and see if they like it well enough to “estrenar”, present for the first time, at a celebration such as at Christmas or New Years. Yaya said some of her songs were popular in Santa Fe. Some of her family lived in San Antonio, and she was also in demand to do Garifuna ceremonies in nearby Santa Fe, San Antonio, and Guadelupe.  

Yaya was not one of the buyeis who would lead the singing at a dugu or chugu. She was always playing the marracas, which are the musical instrument thought to really pull (jalar) the ancestor spirits into the dugu or chugu ceremony. Yaya learned to play the maracas in the correct way for Garifuna ancestor ceremonies, because a deceased family member who had been a buyei appeared to her in dreams and taught her how to play maracas. Younger buyeis also generally do not study medicinal plants with older buyeis because they believe the ancestor spirits will reveal to them the plants they will need.

Most of the younger buyeis in Trujillo currently do not speak enough Garifuna to offer a plate of food at a chugu. The future of the Garifuna religióus ceremonies with its three nights and two days of singing in the Garifuna language looks grim. But I have seen the ancestors possess younger Garifunas who do not speak Garifuna and have them give messages in Garifuna when they both did not know anything about the situation they were giving a message about and they did not speak Garifuna well. The older ancestors who used to work for the Banana companies like Truxillo Railroad and will sometimes possess younger Garifunas who do not speak English and have them give messages in English. The male ancestors will also possess female Garifunas and have them give messages in the male form of Garifuna. So don’t count the ancestors out yet.

In Trujillo, the male buyei Enrique (Esly) García, head of the Club Wabaragoun, usually led the singing of sacred songs at a ceremony like a dugu or chugu.  Elsy had spent two months at the house of another buyei to betaught the songs by the other male buyei the recently deceased Santos, according to Santos’s father Beto Reyes. So dugu songs can both be taught by others or revealed by ancestors.

They can also just be composed by individuals like other Garifuna songs. Profesor Santos Angel Batiz told me of participating in meetings with older Garifunas in Sangrelaya who used to compose dugu songs, treat with medicinal plants, and meet to discuss Garifuna matters like should a new word be allowed in the  Garifuna language before a particularly agressive Catholic priest came to Sangrelaya in the mid-twentieth century and threatened to not permit burials of people and other church related punishments to those who met and did such things. There are a lot of words in dugu songs that even fluent younger speakers of Garifuna do not understand. There is a good possibility some of them will be African loan words. Finding this out, however, will not be easy as most Garifunas do not like to translate neither songs nor uruga.

During her lifetime  Yaya had been part of Garifuna women’s dance clubs. She was also in demand at as a singer of punta at Wakes. The first time I met her, before we became friends, she was singing with a trio of Garifuna women at what I later learned was the wake of her half brother  Francisco Avila, who had been the owner of a restaurant in Barrio Cristales, Trujillo Arca de Allianza which was near my house in Barrio Cristales and the wake was held in the street in front of the restaurant which was part of his house. When I would hear Punta drums at night, I would go out, concerned who of my neighbors had died.

I was also at the time helping David Flores with an investigation of Garifuna dances for his book “La Evolucion Historica de la Danza Folklorica Hondureña”. I went to so many Garifuna ceremonies and dances my first year in Trujillo, when I missed a chugu, a few days later, the drummer who was the head of the Garifuna music group in Trujillo  “Los Menudos”  Francisco “Pancho” David stopped me on the street. “Are you OK?,” he asked. “There was a chugu yesterday and you weren’t there, so we thought you must be sick.”

Family members or friends composing songs when someone has died is common. My friend Angelica (Jeca) Gutierrez, my friend Kike Gutierrez’s mother, was not a person to spend time in Garifuna ceremonies like dugus, chugus, and wakes, even though she spoke Garifuna. Perhaps it was because she was very Catholic, having been the housekeeper of the foreign Catholic priests inTrujillo for 12 years, although I have been to both a chugu for her sister before she died and a bath of the soul at her house for her sister after she died.  But when her son Kike died, who had been her main support, she was moved to compose a Garifuna song where she is telling Kike’s sister Lucia (Lucy) in New York that Kike had died, and she sang the song for me, which was very lovely.   This is the origin of most punta songs. One of the members of a dance club in Trujillo also composed a song when Kike was injured and was left in a wheelchair for the next 20 years.  She and the dance club would come and sing it to him.

According to the interview with Paul Nabor, the 80 year old male parranda Singer, guitarist, and buyei, in the video “Aventura Garifuna” by a Spanish TV station, which was on the Internet, he also wrote his most famous song “Nuguyenei” (My Older Sister) at her request when she was dying, to be sung at her wake and as they carried her coffin to the grave yard. I have been told that song is now like the town anthem of the Belizean Garifuna town of Punta Gorda.   He also said he wrote songs when people did something that made him angry, and then he would sing it at the next wake. Most people notice that Garifunas are generally pretty peaceful, unlike Ladinos who are stereotyped as being violent and getting into machete fights before, and shoot with guns now. Garifunas have songs that make fun of people and whole dances particularly the masked dances  at Christmastime which are ways to make fun of people to relieve tensión, so that you do not feel that you have to go out and kill them. Ridicule them instead.  In West Africa, whole festivals of dances of making fun of people (burlar) are known to have existed.

Separation comes not only from death, but also through immigration. Issues related to immigration of Garifunas to the US permeate almost all genres of Garifuna music. There are punta songs such a younger sister telling her older brother  (Nitu) not to immigrate, and leave her alone. There is a man’s song, I think Arumajani about how there is no work here. I am thinking of going to the US.  They say there is work there. Several of Honduran Garifuna Aurelio Martinez’s songs deal with Immigration. On his Lita Ariran (Black Rooster) CD he sings a song called “La Carta” (The Letter) about receiving a letter where his mother, his brother, his uncle, everyone says they are coming from the States to visit and he has to prepare them something. In the video “La Aventura Garifuna” he tells the story of how he composed the song “Yalifu” (The Pelican) when he was 14 years old and living alone in La Ceiba to go to high school, and he was at the beach. The song says he wishes he could change into a pelican and fly to where his father was. His Garifuna father left their traditional Garifuna village of Plaplaya when he was 3 years old and he did not see him again until he was over 20 years and playing a concert in New York City.


This is a chapter from the book Yaya: La Vida de una Curandera Garifuna (Yaya: The Life of a Garifuna Healer) which is co-authored by Wendy Griffin and Tomasa Clara Garcia Chimilio, affectionately known as Yaya. Other parts of this book in progress are in the versión listed on WorldCat.  


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