MARCH 15th, The FIFTH Day of GARIFUNA American Heritage Month in New York (GARIFUNA Language)

 

Garifuna Singer Musician YOUNG GARI at Wabatou in Brooklyn in February 2010.   Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Singer Musician YOUNG GARI at Wabatou in Brooklyn in February 2010. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright 2014 by Teofilo Colon Jr.  (a.k.a. “Tio Teo” or “Teofilo Campeon”) All Rights Reserved.  Telephone: (646) 961-3674.

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New York, New York — MARCH 15th is the FIFTH Day of GARIFUNA American Heritage Month in New York.  This posting will explore the GARIFUNA Language. Aye!

The final essay by Marion Cayetano and Roy Cayetano (two Garifuna men from Belize) in the book by Garifuna Anthropologist Dr. Joseph O. Palacio, “The Garifuna: A Nation Across Borders–Essays in Social Anthropology” talks about the process behind the application to UNESCO designating the Garifuna Language, Music and Dance as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.   1

In writing about the Garifuna Language, the writers explain,

“The Garifuna Language is well developed, providing for complex description, poetry, belief systems, as well as analytical thought.  The Garifuna Language has several features that are of universal interest, and therefore value.  It is a language of South American and West Indian origin that today is only by a black population in Central America.  It belongs to the Arawak language family, while including some lexical items derived from Carib and the European languages of the French, Spanish and English who attempted to colonize them on St. Vincent.” — Marion Cayetano and Roy Cayetano

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Eventually the writers begin to write about some of the complications of the Garifuna Language.

“The Garifuna Language is essentially an Arawak language, a language spoken by Arawak women in communities conquered and taken over by Carib men in the course of the Carib expansion first in South America and later in the Lesser Antilles.  A rare linguistic feature that is quite fascinating is the fact that the Garifuna language has forms and structures that are used exclusive by males.  This difference is eroding as fewer and fewer men master the use of these male forms, thereby diminishing the distinctive richness of the language.  The men spoke Carib and women spoke Arawak.  The language of the vanquished survived although the community had come to be seen as Carib.   While the language was influenced by Carib and the European languages with which it came in contact, it survived.  It survived the assimilation of the escaped African slaves, the consequent change in phenotype and the rise of the so called Black Caribs.”  — Marion Cayetano and Roy Cayetano.

Ruben Reyes as Los Angeles Garifuna Language Instructor Ricardo in the Award-Winning, Independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL.  Photo courtesy of Aban Productions.

Ruben Reyes as Los Angeles Garifuna Language Instructor Ricardo in the Award-Winning, Independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL. Photo courtesy of Aban Productions.

Without going too much further, a person casually listening to Garifunas speaking the Garifuna language wouldn’t be blamed if they assumed that the Garifuna Language was African in nature.  It sure sounds like it!  However, did you know that there are approximately only five loan words in the Garifuna Language that are African?  At the same time, the phonology IS mostly African, with it’s percussive, rhythmic cadences and the musicality of its nasal sounds.  Upon closer examination of the language, I also often hear, for lack of a better word, is the ‘Indian-ness’ or ‘Native-American-ness’ of the Garifuna Language, particularly in some of the intonation.  It’s evident to me when I hear Garifuna singing or chanting in particular.

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In listening to the Garifuna language, the story of a one-of-a-kind people with a history unique to the Americas begins to form.  I heard the Garifuna Language spoken by my parents and the older generation of relatives in my family while growing up, but never bothered to learn it.  In short, the emphasis was on the children in the family learning the English.  After all, we are in America, and English is the official language of this country.  It was felt that mastering English would improve our chances of getting a job and making a better life for ourselves.  To a degree, I took the Garifuna Language for granted.

Garifuna Language Class in 2012.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Language Class in 2012. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

A few years ago, I had this sudden urge to want to learn to speak my ancestral language.  I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it took place, but in essence it was when I began to learn more about my Garifuna ethnicity and began to appreciate the unique aspects of Garifuna culture.  Perhaps, getting older also had something to do with it, as I am in my thirties.  Also, while not everyone can dance, nor can everyone sing, everyone (unless you are MUTE) can talk, so I began to try to learn to speak the Garifuna Language.

Below is a video from Journalism Student, Nesh Pillay who did a news story on Garifuna Language and Culture being endangered and some of the work being done to prevent the Garifuna Language and Garifuna Culture from becoming extinct.  It aired on the 219 West Show on CUNY-TV.  This news story explores some of the issues surrounding the usage of the Garifuna Language.

My urge to learn more about Being Garifuna quickly became an obsession and eventually I began to investigate as much as I can about the Garifuna Language so that I could teach myself.  I began to seek out Garifuna Language speakers, particularly ones my age or younger and began to try and speak to them in the Garifuna Language.

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Sadly, most of the younger Garifunas I came across did not speak the language.  This was also the case for many younger Garifuna American singers and musicians that I came across. While most knew the lyrics to their songs or the songs in the Garifuna bands they performed in, and most were experts in performing the ritualistic chants that help get the music across and engage audiences, most couldn’t have a basic conversation with me.  Why?  Is the Garifuna Language THAT hard?  Is it a case of Garinagu being embarrassed by the Garifuna Language as it may be representative of someone who is ‘country’ or backwards or unsophisticated and therefore not acceptable?

Garifuna Language Teacher Mr. Milton Güity Sr in 2012.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Language Teacher Mr. Milton Güity Sr in 2012. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Below is video of Arufudahati (“Teacher” in the Garifuna Language) Milton Guity teaching the Garifuna Language during his Garifuna Language Course at Garifuna Non-Profit Organization, Casa Yurumein (a.k.a. “Hondurans Against AIDS Inc) in 2012.

There are a few approaches to teaching the Garifuna Language.  You have the traditional way, where you memorize vocabulary and grammar rules, and practice speaking the Garifuna Language with the guidance of those who speak the Garifuna Language fluently. You can see an example of this in the above video.  However, there are limits to this approach.  You’re limited to the availability of Garifuna Grammar Books and Garifuna Language Teachers.

I was surprised to learn that there are few Garifuna Grammar Books available to the public.  You have the out-of-print, “Conversemos En Garifuna” by Garifuna Linguist Salvador Suazo.  That Garifuna Grammar Book is in Spanish and Garifuna and while proficient, it’s limited to Spanish speakers.

I own a copy of a children’s Garifuna Language book called “Wani Le” (“This Is Ours” in the Garifuna Language) as well as “Conversemos En Garifuna” (“Let Us Speak in Garifuna” in the Spanish Language).  Other efforts to produce Garifuna Language Grammar books include a Garifuna Language Workbook by the Los-Angeles based GAHFU (Garifuna American Heritage Foundation United) non-profit organization.

Here is video of Los Angeles Garifuna Language Teacher Ruben Reyes teaching a Garifuna Language Class for the GAHFU organization there.  The focus here is on the Garifuna word for “eat”.

Again, you have a professor standing before a blackboard, writing with chalk, pronouncing the words along with how they are used in part of a sentence.  Which is fine.  I find that one of my problems I have is remembering vocabulary.  I spend so much time using flash cards to remember lists of vocabulary which works for the moment, but after a while it can be tricky to retain.  Also, the repetitive nature of repeating vocabulary words over and over again via flash cards gets BORING.

James Lovell, a Garifuna Singer Musician who also teaches the language uses a different approach to teaching the Garifuna Language.   He uses children’s songs to teach the Garifuna Language.  Below is a video clip  demonstrating a portion of his technique.

Here, Mr. James Lovell teaches a Children’s song translated into the Garifuna Language to adults at a 2013 Fundraiser for his Yugacure Initiative in St. Vincent Island.

And here, is Mr. James Lovell with members of his Afri-Garifuna Youth Ensemble singing the children’s song, “Are You Sleeping?”.

Using music to learn a language sure appears to be a method to learn aspects of a language quickly and easily.  However, how long is this retained?  I’m not sure, but in the meantime, I am also beginning to listen intently to Garifuna Music (I own a few Garifuna Music albums) and try to repeat what I hear.  I can’t sing, but it’s something I am trying out.

When I do LISTEN to Garifuna Music albums, I often find that I am most interested in sequences or passages when you simply hear someone speaking with very little or no music.  For me, it’s there where I begin to appreciate the nuances of the Garifuna Language.

Also, I’ve found that listening to Garifuna Music is a way to train my ear to get used to the words used in the Garifuna Language.  There have been many instances where someone would say something basic to me and I would have NO clue what they just said–and that’s something that I SHOULD know.  I discovered that my ear wasn’t yet USED to hearing the distinct sounds that make words in the Garifuna Language.

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One aspect of the Garifuna Language that messes people up is the fact that the vocabulary used in some instances varies by region or nationality.  The term for the word ‘until’ for example.  In Guatemala, you say ‘Dari’.  As in ‘Dari Amuweyu’ (“Until Another Day” in the Garifuna Language).  Whereas, in Honduras, you say “Dei Amuweyu” (“Until Another Day” in the Garifuna Language).  For me, that makes me appreciate the Garifuna Language even MORE.

Is there a method out there that makes the memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules easier?  I am trying out a few things and we’ll see how that goes.  As I practice and refine my own Teach Myself The Garifuna Language course, I’ll report to you all and let you know how it is going.

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As I continue on this Teach Myself Garifuna course, I find that I crave speaking to people who can speak the Garifuna Language.  I LOVE hearing the Garifuna Language spoken correctly.  Why do so many that I come across not share the same…passion for the Garifuna Language that I do?  I’m not sure, but the sad thing is so many appear to not care about learning and speaking the Garifuna Language.

Is it laziness?  Are social conditions such that it doesn’t pay to speak the Garifuna Language, so why bother?  Is it a matter of the language being spoken by a marginalized people, therefore the language isn’t reinforced by the larger society by having it spoken / written in mass media?  I am not sure, but I sure get excited when I get to speak with someone who actually speaks the Garifuna Language.

One of the peculiar things about the Garifuna Language is that it’s largely an oral language.  Meaning, many people who speak the Garifuna Language have never written or read the language.  I’ve also come across many Garinagu who say they understand the Garifuna Language but are unable to speak it.  Because of it being a largely oral language, it isn’t standardized.  Does that factor in the accessibility (or lack thereof) of the Garifuna Language?

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So imagine my delight when I met the young Garifuna singer-musician YOUNG GARI in 2009.  Born in Houston, raised in the Bronx and in Honduras, this talented musician and singer is fluent in the Garifuna Language and is very much acquainted in all aspects of Garifuna culture. Despite his youth (he was in his mid-20s when I met YOUNG GARI), he’s also a Garifuna Music Veteran as he’s been in various Garifuna Bands since the late 90s.

There was a song of his that I love, called Gudemei (“Poverty” in the Garifuna Language).  That song is featured on his debut solo album, Nibagari (“My Life” in the Garifuna Language–released in 2008).  What I loved about the song was that it had a beginning, a middle and end.  To me, Gudemei had drama, a palpable excitement that you can feel, and had a lovely musicality to it’s melody and rhythms.

One day, I asked Young Gari to translate the song for me.  I was curious as to what he was singing about on the song and asked him to translate it to me.  I was stunned to  learn about the depth of the song as it explores that young man’s spiritual conflict and the determined, joie de vivre needed to resolve it.  The music video that accompanied the song doesn’t quite express that sentiment.

Upon this revelation, I immediately asked if I could interview him and record his translation.  I felt that the world needed to know this song and learn about the song’s meaning.  To me this was an opportunity to go beyond the surface pleasures of the rhythms of Garifuna music.

Garifuna Singer Musician YOUNG GARI in 2010.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Singer Musician YOUNG GARI in 2010. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

 

Most times, it’s that surface pleasure (loving that beat) that is encouraged and upon learning that there’s more to some Garifuna music than that, I wanted to do my part to expand awareness of the art and uncover the meaning behind the best in Garifuna music.

Remember, like in Rap Music, the race and age of these artists are often used against their ability to create significant work as far as those artists getting their just due regard.  The limited attention the genre gets also factors in as well.  While I have mixed feelings about the interview (most of what I didn’t like about the interview are technical in nature), one of the things I am most proud of is that a listener also gets a sense of the intelligence behind this particular Garifuna artist.

If you find the BEING GARIFUNA Website helpful and useful, please DONATE.  Every dollar donated helps keep this website in operation.  Donations are accepted via the PAYPAL website so your potential donations are SAFE and SECURE.

So here’s the interview about the Young Gari song “Gudemei”, dated April of 2010.  I wasn’t very prepared for this impromptu interview and wish I could have gotten more.  In fact, I had planned to do more, but our schedules were never really able to match.  Some time after the interview, a friend told me that the song is actually a redoing of aspects of traditional Garifuna songs.  I wasn’t able to confirm that, all I know is that ‘Gudemei’ is a HOT song.

Below is the interview.  What do you think of it?  Please write a comment below.  For one, I appreciated the opportunity to be able to listen to how Garifuna words are pronounced without the music overshadowing it.

About Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York

Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York (March 11th through April 12th) is designed to reflect on and observe the occasion of the Garifuna people (then known as Black Caribs) being kicked out of their ancestral land of St. Vincent Island on March 11th 1797 to their arrival in Central America on April 12th 1797.  The dates reference the period of time where the Garifuna voyage took place between their ancestral land and their new place of residence, where a new life was forced upon them.

According to a press release from the non-profit organization the Garifuna Coalition USA Inc, Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York also,

“celebrates the great contributions of Garífuna-Americans to the fabric of New York City and New York State, and pays tribute to the common culture and bonds of friendship that unite the United States and the Garífuna’s countries of origin (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras Nicaragua and St Vincent and the Grenadines.)”.

The Garifuna Coalition adds, “New York City is home to the largest Garífuna Community outside of Central America!  However, although Garífunas have been migrating here in search of a better life since the 1930s; the community was virtually obscured until the Happy Land Social Club fire on March 25th, 1990.”  Most of the victims of that tragedy were Honduran, many were of Garifuna descent 2.

2015 Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York. (March 11th through April 12th). Logo by Ivan Moreira.

2015 Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York. (March 11th through April 12th). Logo by Ivan Moreira.

Overall, the idea is to pay tribute to the survival and resiliency of the Garifuna people and also highlight the contributions made by Garifunas to the state of New York and the United States of America.  Also, this as well as other activities taking place in New York during Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York are designed to further visibility of the Garifuna ethnic group to the general populace of New York City.

ABOUT The Garifuna People

The Garifuna people are people of African descent (in other words, Black people) whose ancestry can be traced to Africans mixing with Carib Indians and Arawak Indians on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. From this fusion of race and ethnicities in St. Vincent Island, a distinct culture and language arose.  They are noted for being one of the few (only?) peoples of African descent (again, in other words, Black people) in the Americas to have maintained aspects of their ancestral culture and full use of their ancestral language for everyday use over the course of hundreds of years.

After being defeated in war with the British on St. Vincent in 1796; 1004 men,  1779 women and 1,555 children for a total of 4,338 people (mostly Black Caribs, as the Garifuna people were then known) were captured and taken to Baliceaux, a small island, a rock, basically, off the coast of St. Vincent.  This took place from July 1796 through February/March 1797.  About 2,000 Garifunas died of a mysterious and very infectious fever while living on Baliceaux awaiting their fate.  3

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In early March 1797, the remaining Garifunas were loaded onto the HMS Experiment and other ships.  Once they were rounded up, the convoy were taken to a Bequia, which is another island off the coast of St. Vincent. They proceeded to go to Grenada to get water, then Jamaica for refueling, then finally Roatan, Honduras, arriving on April 12th 1797.

Finding much of Roatan unliveable, the Garifuna people petitioned officials representing Spain and it’s government (which controlled much of Central America at the time) to be allowed to move to the Honduran mainland.  Upon being allowed to move to the Honduran mainland, namely the port town of Trujillo, Honduras in May 1797; the Garifunas settled many towns and villages along the Caribbean coast of Honduras.  They also migrated to the neighboring countries of Guatemala, Belize (then known as British Honduras) and Nicaragua over the years.  Finally, Garifuna People have also migrated to the United States of America where generations have settled in cities like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

If you find the BEING GARIFUNA Website helpful and useful, please DONATE.  Every dollar donated helps keep this website in operation.  Donations are accepted via the PAYPAL website so your potential donations are SAFE and SECURE.

 

Logo for 2014 Garifuna American Heritage Month.  Logo by Ivan Moreira.

Logo for 2014 Garifuna American Heritage Month. Logo by Ivan Moreira.

 

Notes:

  1. Marion Cayetano and Roy Cayetano, “Garifuna Language, Dance and Music: A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. How Did It Happen?” Cubola Productions, (2005).
  2. Edna Negron, “Club Tragedy an Awakening for Garifuna”, New York Newsday, Sunday, August 18th 1991.
  3. Nancie L Gonzalez, “Sojourners of The Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna” pgs 21-23

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