Andy Palacio: Champion of Garifuna culture

Andy Vivien Palacio, musician and cultural promoter: born Barranco, Belize 2 December 1960; married Doreen Castillo (one son, four daughters; marriage dissolved); died Belize City 19 January 2008.

No one who heard the opening bars of Andy Palacio's triumphant London concert at the tiny Cargo club last summer will forget the moment; an intensely powerful culmination of years of music-making and activism, not only on behalf of his own community, the little-known Garifuna people of Belize, but for all Belizeans, to whom he was a national hero.

In the last year the runaway success of Palacio's most recent album, Wátina, had catapulted him and his latest ensemble, the Garifuna Collective – a multi-national and multi-generational group – to international acclaim. Palacio and his producer Ivan Duran, with whom he had spent almost five years nurturing Wátina, won the Womex prize and were nominated for countless accolades, including a BBC World Music award.

It was also a remarkable coup for the fledgling label Cumbancha which supported the project at a time when Garifuna music was still largely ignored – and rarely recorded – outside the coastal areas of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua where 250,000 descendants of indigenous Arawak Indians and African slaves live today, more than 200 years after the British expelled their ancestors from the tiny Caribbean island of St Vincent.

Wátina, which means "I call out", was Palacio's proudest achievement, a return to the pure Garifuna rhythms of his roots after a career that had begun during his schooldays when he taught himself to play his father's harmonica. Even then he realised that "Garifuna music was not something to be valued or preserved. No one thought it worth noting down."

It was while he was at teacher training college in the early 1980s – listening all the while to musical influences ranging from Bob Marley to Kool and the Gang – that Palacio volunteered to join a literacy brigade in Nicaragua. Finding himself in Orinoco on the Atlantic coast, he made his first greeting in their shared language but he was horrified to discover that only a few elders still used it. "No one under 50 seemed able to speak it," he recalled. "I was shocked."

It was a turning point and after he returned to Belize to finish his training Palacio was to dedicate himself to the conservation of the culture and the language. The early spur to his mainstream musical career came in the 1980s as he rode the crest of the Punta Rock wave (a style first made famous by Pen Cayetano and the Turtle Shell Band) with such early hits as the satirical "Bikini Panty" and "Gimme Punta Rock".

But music did not provide enough of a living to allow Palacio to compose and play full time and he sought other work. In 1987 he was invited to the UK where he worked with the community arts organisation English Cultural Partnerships. Back home later that year, with assistance from VSO he helped to establish Sunrise, Belize's first attempt to record examples of music from all communities including the Maya and Kriol as well as Garifuna.

As an artist he was to collaborate with several producers but it was with Duran's Stonetree label that things really took off. They released Belize's first CD, Keimoun, in 1995 followed by Til Da Mawnin' two years later.

Shortly afterwards, Palacio began to gather the nucleus of what would become the Garifuna Collective, joining with the young Honduran Aurelio Martinez (now a prominent parliamentarian) and the Belizean octogenarian Paul Nabor. The British DJ Norman Cook, aka Fat Boy Slim, flew to Belize last year and spent several days recording with them.

That his music brought pleasure to the Belizean diaspora was another cause for celebration. Palacio was, says his friend Jacob Edgar of Cumbancha, a very humble man at heart who preferred the music to speak for him.

He was also a working civil servant whose day job as assistant director at Belize's National Institute of Art and Culture allowed him considerable freedom to undertake a demanding touring schedule. It was through his work with NIAC that Unesco – which had already named him as Artist for Peace, also recognised the Garifuna language and culture as part of the "Intangible Heritage of Humanity".

Elizabeth Mistry

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