One of the most extraordinary Central American artists of his generation, Aurelio Martinez is a musical ambassador and champion of the Garifuna, a culturally threatened African Amerindian ethnic minority living primarily along the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Hailing from the small community of Plaplaya in Honduras, he grew up immersed in Garifuna rhythms, rituals, and songs. With powerfully evocative vocals; talent as a composer, guitarist, and percussionist; and over 30 years’ experience, Aurelio is central to the perpetuation and innovation of this unique tradition.
Garifuna culture reflects the complex roots of Aurelio’s ancestors, Africans who landed on the island of St. Vincent in 1675 after the wreck of a slave ship and intermarried with local Carib and Arawak peoples, only to be deported to Central America by the British in the late 18th century. The Garifuna language is Arawakan and their music differs significantly from that of the rest of Central America, with a dense percussive range and emphasis on vocal artistry. Garifuna music is rooted in the dügü ritual, a sacred practice of spirit-possession that exhibits cultural kinship with rituals documented in Central and South America, all with West African cultural roots. In 2001 UNESCO proclaimed the language, dance, and music of the Garifuna as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The style of Garifuna music that Aurelio plays incorporates the guitar—adopted from the Spanish—and is called paranda. He follows in the footsteps of legendary paranderos, including his friend and mentor, the late Andy Palacio, whom the New York Times called “the man who saved Garifuna music.”
Born into a family possessing a long and distinguished musical heritage, at six Aurelio was already playing drums at social gatherings. He made his first guitar out of fishing line and driftwood and learned to play from cassettes his father, who migrated to New York City when Aurelio was young, sent back to Plaplaya. His mother, a respected singer and composer, provided the rest of his inspiration. In 1998, Aurelio contributed to Stonetree Records now-famous paranda recording sessions, delivering several masterful performances. He was the youngest of the paranderos represented on that album, and his experience rededicated him to keeping Garifuna culture alive. “My history is very special,” states Aurelio, “I don’t work music to make money. I do music to support my culture.”
Aurelio’s commitment to the Garifuna people saw him enter politics in 2005, becoming the first senator of African descent in the Honduran congress. In 2015, the Bronx-based Garifuna Coalition, USA celebrated the 30th anniversary of Aurelio’s career with a musical tribute in his honor. While he left politics in 2010, he remains deeply involved with projects teaching Garifuna traditions to the next generation.