As Aurelio Martinez knows well, music is much more than another commodity to be bought and sold. The Honduras-based troubadour with the stage name Aurelio understands its role in helping bring together and bind whole communities, and has dedicated his life to his people, the Garifuna of Central America’s Caribbean coast. Through his liltingly melodic and highly rhythmic songs, he bolsters their identity, while spreading awareness of their little-known black culture.
The Garifuna descend from African slaves shipwrecked off St. Vincent and the indigenous Caribs of that island. They survived deportation, starvation, and disease to spread out along the shoreline of four nations—Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, where Aurelio grew up in the village of Plaplaya.
“My mother is a Garifuna singer-songwriter, but she never left the community,” he says, reached on the road in Honduras. “She often arranges songs for me. My father played guitar. When I was three, he left and went to the U.S. He did homemade recordings and sent them to us. I learned to play that way, without any teachers.”
Aurelio first made his mark on other instruments, however.
“I was the percussionist for the entire community during celebrations. That way, I learned many of the traditional dances and ancestral songs. After I left home at 14 for the city, I studied and worked at the same time, playing with various cultural groups and commercial bands. In time I became a member of Los Gatos Bravos, one of the leading Honduran bands, and toured Japan, where we recorded Sonidos Garífunas Del Mundo.”
Soon afterward, his star rising, Aurelio met the great Belizean Garifuna songwriter Andy Palacio and his equally passionate producer Ivan Duran.
“We started making recordings of the last players of parranda, a beautiful acoustic-guitar style my father taught me, and made an album from them that has a more contemporary sound and feeling. Now some people are playing parranda again. Later, we made my first solo album, Garifuna Soul , and Andy’s Wátina , which was a big success in many countries.”
In 2008 Aurelio became the standard-bearer for Garifuna roots music, following Palacio’s untimely death. Working with the painstaking and innovative Duran, he’s put out two outstanding albums on the Stonetree label—Laru Beya (2011) and Lándini (2014).
“I conceived Lándini with my mother. It’s more acoustic, going back to Plaplaya and drawing on its old soul in a new way. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel as a musician, talking about things that nobody could talk about before, and some in my community have condemned me for this. But it’s important to take Garifuna culture to the world, and to serve as a role model for the young to help prevent the cultural alienation so many Garifuna are experiencing now.”
Aurelio and his five-piece band perform at St. James Hall on Sunday (January 31).