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A Garifuna legend passes

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Bertram Val Crick -Brooklyn 01.FEB.08

Two years ago, I was sitting in the American Airlines departure lounge to Belize in the Miami Airport – reading a book – when suddenly the beam of sunlight which I was enjoying was broken. I looked up and realized that a man with a guitar was standing directly in the path of my source of vitamin D. Our eyes made contact and he smiled as if we had known each other.{{more}}

In fact, it was our first encounter.

We started a conversation and exchanged introduction tidbits. He said his name was Andy Palacio from Belize and that he was a Punta Rock musician. I explained to him that I was from St. Vincent and this served as a catalyst to elevate the cultural level of the conversation.

Our conversation centered on the Garifuna people and the possibilities for greater exchanges between our peoples. I explained that in my case, I was already along that path; since I was actively investing in Belize and for that matter, near Dangriga which is the Garifuna cultural capital. I bought a CD of his music, named Watima, to further demonstrate my goodwill.

We discussed the little known fact that the Garifuna people were the only Africans who came to the Americas and were not enslaved. They were captured and brought here to the Americas with the intent of enslavement; but were free for 162 years until their decimation and expulsion to the “Mosquito Coast” by the British in 1797. Their freedom was spawned in 1635 when their slave ship sank in the Bequia Channel and they swam ashore to Vincyland. They intermarried with the Carib and were later called the Black Caribs.

Nevertheless, the Garifuna were never enslaved and were free even before the Haitians. They were a free people in St. Vincent whose language is now a mixture of Igbo (Ibo), Carib, French, English and Spanish. They remained a free people in the Americas and have lived in Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Their numbers have grown from the original 3000 survivors in 1797 to nearly 500,000 today.

The Garifuna are a proud and resourceful people who have weathered discrimination, marginalization and now threats of linguistic and cultural extinction. Andy explained to me that he was eighteen years old when he visited Nicaragua and was mutually moved to tears in the arms of an old man who heard him speak Garifuna. That old man thought that all of the young Garifuna throughout the Americas – as is the case in St. Vincent – had been linguistically co-opted by the Spanish and English languages.

Andy said that that fateful encounter inspired him to be his peoples’ cultural spokesman through music.

Fast forward the CD of life to one morning while listening to the morning program on NPR radio during the first week in January of 2008. I could not believe my ears when I heard that Andy Palacio was the featured musician – including reference to him being honored by the United Nations for his efforts as a musician in preserving the endangered Garifuna language and culture. It was the first time that I told my wife Elsa that I knew the featured musician.

Tweak that same CD of life to January 27th, 2008, and I read in the New York Daily News that Andy Palacio was dead. I thought that he couldn’t be over the tender sum of forty years old and the usual suspects as the how and why he died raced through my mind.

After calling around, one of my Belizean friends told me that he died of a heart attack and that he was buried on January 26th.

Andy Palacio was a musical palace of the Garifuna people and by extension, to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. To this internationally recognized cultural hero, I say Ayo Numadagu (goodbye friend) and Abban Isien (One Love).

May that first broken beam of sunlight be restored and shine perpetually in your life beyond.

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