Live Garifuna music in Portland!


Since I always complain about how the Portland print media usually ignore any sort of international music event, I have to give credit where credit is due. Brett Campbell is a byline that has cropped up in the Oregonian and the Willamette Week in the last year. I have been pleasantly surpised recently to see international music concert previews in the papers, and his name is usually attached to them. If it wasn’t for his write-up of the Andy Palacio show at the Oregon Zoo last Wednesday, I wouldn’t even have been aware of it happening. Thanks, Brett. (I later learned Luciana Lopez wrote it up on her blog, so thank you, Luciana.  -She later wrote to say, “i just wanted to note that i also put him in my five live column on aug 3 (complete with pic). because, frankly, i totally feel you on the need to spotlight a broader range of music in pdx!” You go, Luciana!)
I am not a fan of Andy’s music, but I am a big fan of Garifuna music aka punta, aka punta rock. Andy is the very mellow, feel-good face of Garifuna music, and the only Garifuna artist available through mainstream music channels in the US. In fact, he announced from the Oregon Zoo stage that his album has officially entered the Billboard world music chart. Let’s say you live in another country and the only Rock’n’Roll artist available is Sting, or Dave Matthews. You wouldn’t know that rock’n’roll could be the Ramones, or Blonde Redhead, or The New Bomb Turks, or whatever. Garifuna music is like that; there are many artists, and many styles, but Andy Palacio is all you will find in the USA. There is one website for punta music called, but it has not been working for me lately, so I have to get all my punta CDs from a Garifuna DJ named Oscar who lives in the Bronx. Thank you, Oscar.

Even though I like my punta percussion-centric, and brimming with hyperspeed-polyrhythms, I went to see Andy Palacio, since I will probably never get another chance to hear live Garifuna music in Portland. The fact that including the bassist, there were more guitarists than percussionists, made it clear that this was not my preferred style of punta. When I saw Garifuna Legacy in Livingston, Guatemala in 1999, I don’t remember a single guitarist, just two keyboardists, and a battery of percussion. The traditional punta group, Los Juveniles de Garifuna, from Livingston, were all percussion, except for melodies played on a conch shell and chanting. -Andy had no turtle shells!- Traditional punta involves turtle shells hanging from a percussionist’s neck that he plays with sticks, in addition to rattles, and several sizes of drums. Andy Palacio’s group did have a guy on rattles, one guy sitting with a traditional drum, one guy with a mixed drum kit, a bassist, and three guitarists. I was really hoping for a stronger rhythmic attack from Mr. Palacio in a live setting. No dice. But Andy is a charming performer with a great spirit, and a real passion for sharing Garifuna music and culture. The crowd was loving it, there were even several Belizean flags, and Andy commented when he saw Belikin beer from the stage. His songs were slowish, with a gentle, Caribbean vibe. The whole time I was watching the stage I found myself wishing that the band would launch into a Garifuna Legacy cover, tripling their pace in the process. I kept singing Garifuna Legacy chants while watching Andy. Despite this, I decided he was probably the best Garifuna musician to spread the music to the middle-aged-with-children crowd in attendance. I might have preferred something harder and faster, but if Garifuna Legacy were to take the stage, they would probably clear everyone who wasn’t up for the speed and intensity. I left with very warm feelings for Andy, and his efforts to share Garifuna culture with us whiteys, but I still left halfway through to go home and listen to Garifuna Legacy CDs.

I love the highly syncopated polyrhythms of punta. I had heard punta rock several times travelling through Belize, and always excitedly asked whoever was playing it, what it was they were listening to. When I heard it booming from the beach in Livingston, I rushed on to the sand floor of one of the beach shack discos, set afire by the punta rhythm. I had heard Aziatic’s “Chatty Chatty” at the Baron Bliss day celebration in Belize City a few weeks before, and promptly approached the DJ to find out what it was, but when I heard it the second time in the disco thatched shack, it was an epiphany of lysergic energy. As I white-boy danced in ecstasy at the center of the dance floor I wondered why all the black Garifuna dancers were staring at me with “What the fuck?” expressions on their faces. I wasn’t the only whitey tourist at the beach shack, so I didn’t think it was because I was a white boy. After dancing for a while with people eyeing me warily as if I was invading their territory, I realize that every single person on the dance floor was coupled except for me. Ohhhhhhhh. -It’s a couples dance- no wonder everyone was tripping out on my solo dance floor exhibition.

To my eyes the dance called punta looks like two people welded together at the crotch, where both hip regions are buzzing like hummingbirds in a locked rhythm, while the rest of their bodies are entirely still. In fact, the men try to look bored and uninvolved while they are crotch buzzing their partner. While the genitals are buzzing against each other, the couple slowly rotates in a circle, although I never saw any foot motion to suggest how their bodies were moving in a circle. It was like magic. I assumed everyone in the village was monogamously partnered, since the dance was so erotic. I later learned that everyone on the dance floor was single, the only signifier of a monogamous relationship (according to Livingston musician Denis circa 1999) is when the woman reverses herself, and grinds her backside up against the man’s crotch.

Thanks to the perreo, that is now just 14-year olds having fun.


Leave a Comment