Garifuna Music

by McNab Editorial Team

In Garifuna culture, music accompanies most activities, often spontaneously and everyone participates. There are no stars in the commercial sense, and even children learn and take part as an endemic part of their formation. Garifuna is a rich amalgam of all the elements of cultural traditions that they are fortunate to have inherited.  Besides the obvious Amerindian and African elements, early French, Spanish and English folk music contributed to their musical heritage. 

Garifuna performing arts embrace songs, dances, plays, processions, storytelling, and poetry. Locally, expert drummers, singers, dancers, and composers are also well recognized and their fame spreads from village to village. Moreover, children perform in public and display a mastery reserved only for those who have been highly trained. In them, it comes naturally. More often, large groups of Garifuna come together on holidays, family events and religious occasions, wherever the drums gather them. 


Yes, drums are the essential element. Garifuna drums are specially crafted, typically made of hardwood, such as mahogany and mayflower. Using fire, water, and gouges, the wood is hollowed out into symmetrical cylinders, Skins prepared of the peccary (a wild bush pig), deer, or sheep are stretched across one end. Two-headed drums are also known.  Thin metal wires are strung across the drum head to serve as snares. Drums are always played with hands; mallets are never used. Some drums, especially those used in sacred music are nearly three feet across and create a great humming sound when struck. 

Furthermore, in secular dance music, two drummers are rule, one the primero (first) and the other designated as segunda (second).  Each drummer plays his own part, with the segunda acting mainly as a steady accompaniment to the more expansive and elaborate cross-rhythms of the primero player,  Three large drums are used in sacred music. 

garifuna shakers

In addition to the drums, Garifuna commonly use rattles. These gourd shakers, known as sisira, are formed from the fruit of the gourd tree, filled with special seeds, and fitted with hardwood handles. However, guitars, flutes, and violins have also found their way into Garifuna music.  Many hundreds of songs are known by the Garifuna today. One class of songs, known as uyanu, is sung without accompaniment, using gestures rather than dance.  Many themes concern travel, a desire to leave or the loneliness of being away from a loved one.  Other songs are written specifically to commemorate an event, comment on someone’s bad behavior, or poke fun at some situation.  Their repertoire includes work songs for men and women, lullabies hymns, and healing ballads. 

Written by Nelita Castillo

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