Andy Palacio: The hero of a people's music

Andy Palacio used the music of his Garifuna forebears to publicise their plight. His death is a tragedy, says Robin Denselow
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The Independent Culture

The death of the singer and songwriter Andy Palacio, at the age of 47, is a tragedy both for the world music scene and for the Garifuna people of Central America, for whom he was both an icon and the best-known defender of their endangered culture. There were, I suspect, few British music fans who had even heard of the plight of the Garifuna until Palacio and the other members of the Garifuna Collective released their outstanding album Watina back in April last year.

It was a stirring, gently soulful set that explored and reworked their traditional styles, from hymns to protest songs, with the light, rhythmic backing provided by guitars, the clanking of rum bottles, or table-top drumming. Palacio was not the only singer featured on the album, but it was he who dominated the set with thoughtful songs like "Amunego", which dealt with the decline of the Garifuna language.

Watina was an infectious, intriguing set of songs that brought new attention to the problems and extraordinary history of a people who are scattered across the Caribbean coast of Central America, and who have, "our own language, music, dances and cuisine", as Palacio was proud to explain. The Garifuna story started back in 1635, when two slave-ships were wrecked off the Caribbean island of St Vincent, and the surviving African captives managed to escape and make their way ashore, where they set up a community of their own, mixing with indigenous local Caribs and Arawak people of the island.

"They formed a union through inter-marriage and their common purpose of resisting slavery and colonisation," Palacio explained when I met him last year, "and from that came the hybrid culture known as Garifuna."

According to Palacio, "there were just two thousand on the slave ships, but now there are half a million Garifuna, world-wide." He made it his life's mission to preserve their culture, while working both as a musician and then a civil servant, before suddenly achieving new international success in the year before his death.

He was born in the south of Belize, in a coastal village near the border with Guatemala, and started playing reggae and R&B in school bands before changing direction when he made "a commitment to focus on Garifuna music as my contribution to the survival of our culture". His early career included a stint working as a DJ and playing punta rock, a dance style that mixed Garifuna influences with other Caribbean styles like soca. For a while he became something of a pop celebrity both in Belize and across Central America, and he even appeared in Britain in 1992, and recorded in Hackney "where the sound I created was a notch above anything that existed in Belize at the time".

By 2000, it seemed that his musical career was slowing down, so he moved into the public service, first taking a job as a rural development officer, and then moving on to become the deputy administrator of the National Institute of Culture and History, and the cultural ambassador for Belize. It was in this latter role that he embarked on the Watina project, determined to go beyond punta rock and "explore the more soulful and spiritual sounds of the Garifuna repertoire".

The resulting album brought Palacio new international fame, and – more importantly – achieved his aim of publicising Garifuna culture. Apart from his own thoughtful and soulful songs, the album included tracks by the 79-year-old veteran singer and guitarist Paul Nabor, "legendary in the Garifuna community for playing at village festivities", and others from a Honduras congressman, Aurelio Martinez, and a quite remarkable school-teacher, Adrian Martiez.

Palacio was also a confident showman, as he proved at his new band's debut London show at Cargo last June. Far more success awaited him this year: he was unanimously voted the winner of the Americas category in the forthcoming World Music Awards.

All of which makes his sudden and untimely death from a stroke and heart attack so shocking and tragic. Today, a massive tribute concert is to be held in his honour in Belize City, where he is to be honoured with a state funeral.