VOICES OF THE SPIRIT: GARIFUNA IN HOUSTON
Angel Quesada, Folklife + Civic Engagement Manager
The staff of the Folklife Program has worked with a wide variety of groups and individuals in Houston’s Garifuna community. In fact, Folklife Director Pat Jasper connected up with her first contact in the Garifuna community through the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project back in 2006. From presenting members from La Iglesia Garifuna Misercordia de Dios at the 2012 Global Gospel concert to a group of independent artists in the ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tres! Latin music series which was presented at 5th Ward Jam in 2013, the Folklife + Civic Engagement program has maintained significant friendships among members of the Garifuna diaspora in Houston.
Throughout our visits, we have always sought out those individuals who are respected for maintaining their culture’s highest standards. The Garifuna community are fiercely proud of their culture and language and happily direct us to their strongest culture bearers. Over the course of four+ years, we have continued our relationships with these men and women and have attended many events one would need to attend to get a broad view of the community and its many facets -- this includes church services, parties, and ceremonies. One of the first events I attended involved meeting Pat Jasper in 2012 at a Garifuna event in 5th Ward. The meeting time was 11 p.m., standard party time. We were warmly welcomed by several of the elders and immediately given guifiti (herbed liquor) to ingest. By 1 a.m., we had met just about everyone in the place, and all were waiting for the music to start. The band arrived from New York and started their setup at 1:30 a.m. However, they did not start playing until about 2:30 a.m. Most Garifuna parties go on until dawn.
Earlier this year we were invited for a special cultural event. This time the focus was on traditional Garifuna drumming. The group consisted of many of the artists who we have worked with to better represent traditional Garifuna culture here in Houston. The event took place at Loncha’s Cafeteria on 3809 Market Street in 5th Ward. Many of these restaurants are cultural hubs for the Garinagau (the term the Garifuna use to name themselves), in addition to attending events, and/or enjoying meals, musicians and dancers use this place for rehearsals.The event was called “Noche de tambores” and featured tradition bearers “Joba,” “Dony,” “Belorio,” and “Blakk Star” who are the central members of the group “Walagante” (pronounced Wah-Láh-Ghat), which is performing at this year’s Voices of the Spirit.
The event began at midnight, with many Garinagau gathering up and down the block visiting and talking. This time we came prepared to do a bit of documentation. Once the music started, the atmosphere was transformed. One by one, or two by two, people approached the drummers and the ritualized dancing became a dialogue between hips and drums. The concert continued going until 5 a.m.
While we have worked with drummers Belorio and Blakk Starr in Uno! Dos! Tres! we also had the pleasure of delving deeper into Garifuna traditions and music thanks to the guidance of an especially respected elder Garinagu named Joba. Having worked with the National Garifuna Ballet Troupe and other cultural affairs associated with the state, Francisco Ruiz, or “Joba,” remains a strong advocate for promoting Garifuna culture and traditions wherever he goes.
One of the many ways in which Joba expresses his love for Garifuna culture and traditions is as an artisan. He makes drums from recycled wood and exports them to clients looking to own an authentic Garifuna drum. On one visit, Joba explained to me how he creates the drums from scratch by cleaning and then drying the skin. He showed me how to find the perfect “bejuco,” a flexible vine used for holding the skin affixed to the drum’s wooden body.
Throughout the process of making a traditional drum, Joba shared with me that he is guided by the ancestors and always asks for permission from them to aid his process. In Garifuna culture, the ancestors are an important part of making music. In this video, he shares his insights about the ways in which drumming connects the person to the ancestors.