Music is a 'weapon to make change' for this Garifuna guitar player and activist

The World

Aurelio Martinez has two major roles in his life: He's a musician, specializing in the music of the Garifuna people of Central America, but he's also a politician who advocates for their rights.

"Music, for me, is my weapon to make change," Martinez says, "to bring power and empower the people in our community, and to give pride to our children. Sometimes, we don't have any pride around our culture, where we come from."

The Garifuna are already a small minority throughout Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And with inevitable cultural assimilation, many of the community's older traditions have already been phased out.

"There are certain songs that used to be performed in social gatherings, and they don't happen as they used to. Especially now, everybody just stays home and watches TV or they go about their lives in a different way," explains Ivan Duran, Martinez's producer.

Garifuna culture started with a 17th century shipwreck: A slave ship crashed on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where slaves met the island's native Kalínago people, learned their language and intermarried

But a century later, after a series of wars, the their descendants were deported by the newly arrived British and forced to live on the Caribbean coast of Central America. That's how the Garifuna adopted a variety of French, Spanish and English cultural traditions.

"It's a very interesting mix of music — just as the culture, which is a mix of different cultures, primarily African and native Caribbean Indians," Duran explains. "The rhythms are very African ... but many of the melodies, for example, are more Amerindian. So they would have more similarities with Native American chants and melodies.

That blend is what gives Garifuna music its unique sound. It also tends to tell a specific story in simple terms. Traditional songs are repurposed by the performer, who will replace names of people and places to tell their own version of the tale. Oftentimes, the stories have a double meaning — for instance, a sad narrative accompanied with an upbeat guitar part.

"I think that artists like Aurelio are very important because they show the younger generation that there's this incredible value in one's cultures and in one's traditions," Duran says. "When you lose some of that basically you're losing some of yourself, of who you are."

Growing up in a small, secluded village on the Honduran coast, Martinez got much of his musical education from his mother, who was a singer and composer herself. According to Duran, Martinez's mother wanted to be a professional singer, "but her mom didn't let her. So she became kind of like a frustrated artist all her life. ... It was Aurelio who fulfilled her dream of becoming a professional artist."

She would compose songs based on her personal experiences and the Garifuna community and teach them to Martinez, who would add verses and build on the story — a musical tradition of their culture. "This new album is like coming back to my roots, like coming back to my town," Martinez says.

Some of his those co-written songs even made it onto the record — like the track "Irawani" ("Midnight.") In it, Maria recalls late nights spent waiting up for her son. Once she hears his guitar, she knows he is close: "I hear the guitar from far away. I hear Aurelio and his guitar visiting midnight."

And while his main tool might be music, Martinez has also fought for change through more traditional means: politics. He was one of the first people of African heritage to become a member of the Honduran legislature, but he resigned in 2008 after frustration with the government's slow progress.

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