Can songs save an endangered language?

A music-led movement is revitalizing the Garifuna language in Central America. In Belize, travelers are invited to join in.

Biodiverse and celebrated snorkel and scuba sites draw adventurers to the Belize Barrier Reef, one of Central America’s conservation success stories. But there’s another impressive restoration movement underway on dry land: the fight to revive an endangered language.

For centuries, Central America’s Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people have kept the culture’s oral history alive through their ancestors’ native language. But decades of modernization, haphazard native-language training in Garifuna schools, intermarriage between cultures, and the ridicule of young people who speak the language, collectively led to Garifuna being listed on the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages in 2001. Today, linguists estimate that about 100,000 speakers remain.

The threat of language extinction isn’t new. Some linguists estimate a language dies every two weeks, as some languages become dominant tools for social and economic exchange, while others are pushed to the margins.

But there are ways to save at-risk languages, as well. The key is that the language needs to be thought of less as preserved, “but indeed part of their present and their future,” says Liliana Sánchez, a linguist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That’s exactly what the Garinagu (Garifuna people) are doing. For the past two decades, Garifuna artists have used a cultural cornerstone—spirited dance music—to inspire young Garinagu to learn and share their native language. Now, with a new Garifuna Tourism Trail project in Belize, travelers can experience and support the cultural renaissance, too.

A proud culture

According to oral history, the Garinagu descend from a group of West Africans who survived the capsizing of its slave ship in the Caribbean Sea in the 1600s. The survivors swam ashore to the island of St. Vincent, now part of the Caribbean country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They spent more than a century settling and intermarrying with the island’s Indigenous Carib-Arawak population, ultimately creating the Garifuna culture

For nearly a hundred years, the Garinagu fought against St. Vincent’s colonization. The British took the island in the late 1700s, then exiled the surviving Garinagu to Honduras. From here, they dispersed to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize, where, as a fishing-centric culture, they settled in coastal communities.

Alvin Laredo, a Garifuna tour guide from the village of Barranco in southern Belize, says modern Garinagu need more than stories, but the actual language, to grasp their ancestors’ brave stand against slavery. Without it, he says, their culture will never be whole. “If you’re losing your language, you’re losing your roots,” he says. “It will dismantle all the ancestors have worked on.”

(Learn more about the race to save the world’s disappearing languages.)

Laredo adds that much of the ancestors’ history is passed down not just by words, but by song and dance, such as the jankunu. In this satirical dance, performed alongside drums during the Christmas and New Year holidays, the Garinagu wear white face masks and colonial garb to mock the English slave masters.

The power of song

Elements of the Garifuna culture—including music, dance, and language—were listed as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Around that same time, Garifuna musicians and cultural activists hatched a plan: Create irresistible melodies, sung entirely in Garifuna, to rally young Garinagu to embrace the culture and learn the language.

Or, as Garifuna singer, songwriter, and UNESCO Artist of Peace Andy Palacio of Belize said in a 2007 interview: Make the Garifuna culture “cool.”

Punta rock did just that. Traditional punta relies heavily on drums and maracas, with sounds that echo that of the Garinagu’s African ancestors. Paranda, another classic Garifuna music style, adds guitar to the melodies, which hints at the culture’s Central American influence.

Punta rock is “the one that really blows up,” says Laredo. It’s similar to punta, but with a keyboard, electric guitar, and horns—the perfect mix to wow on the world stage.

Palacio, a leader in the cultural renaissance, gathered Garifuna musicians across Central America to form the Garifuna Collective band in 2007. Their Garifuna lyrics sent a powerful message: It’s time to defend our culture.

Multiple world tours and international music awards later, the Garifuna Collective “put Garifuna on the international map, and took Belize along with it,” says Laredo. Although Palacio passed away in 2008, his lyrics, and the work of Garifuna musical activists across Central America, lit a cultural flame for Garinagu worldwide.

“Music made me intrigued with the culture; it became an identity,” says Kevin Ramirez, a Garifuna musician and producer based in New York, where his parents, both Garifuna, immigrated from Honduras. Ramirez grew up learning about his family’s culture, but, as a Garifuna American, he struggled to comprehend his identity. “I’m Black, but the Black Americans didn’t embrace me because I spoke Spanish; I spoke Spanish, but Latinos didn’t embrace me because I’m Black.”

(How to travel the world—by radio.)

He found a sense of belonging after visiting Honduras and attending live Garifuna music shows; these travels inspired him to start Hagucha Records, one of today’s top Garifuna record labels. His story of cultural reclamation, of honing and spreading the culture and language through song, mirrors the path of many contemporary Garifuna artists.

Take musician James Lovell, who adopted the language at age 16 to follow in the footsteps of his favorite Belizean musician and cultural revivalist, Pen Cayetano, “the king of punta rock.” Lovell became part of a larger grassroots effort to teach the language in New York. Increasingly, many Garifuna language lessons are now available online.

Another set of musicians were inspired by Palacio’s message: the founders of Battle of the Drums, an international music competition in Belize. This renowned crew helps elementary and high schools in Belize teach the Garifuna culture and language through music—a strategy borrowed by other language professors who teach Garifuna via song.

Will music save the Garifuna language? Time will tell. Garifuna remains on UNESCO’s endangered-language list, last updated in 2010. And, as the Hawaiians learned from revitalizing their own language post colonization, this kind of revival is a long, multi-generational road.

Tourism’s supporting role

The Garifuna language revival does have a new and welcome new boost: Belize’s Garifuna Tourism Trail, which formally launched in March 2022. Similar to the country’s well-trodden Mayan cultural experiences, this trail is Belize’s first collective push to promote Garifuna tourism experiences. Instead of following a “dancers in resorts” tourism model, the Garinagu invite travelers to experience and connect with them where they live, and on their terms.

The grant-funded initiative, spearheaded by the Belize Tourism Board and the Caribbean Tourism Organization, includes 50 Garifuna-owned businesses across Dangriga and Hopkins, two culture hubs on Belize’s southern coast. As the trail grows, organizers hope to add more local businesses to the mix. 

Experiences range from taking music lessons at Lebeha Drumming Center in Hopkins to admiring traditional art at Garinagu Crafts and Art Gallery in Dangriga. Goals for the trail’s 2024 completion include tour-guide training and expansion into other Garifuna towns.

Tourism alone won’t save a language; a sustainable revival must take root with native speakers themselves. But tourism can provide one effective language-retention motivation: income. Sánchez says more economic opportunities, coupled with pride in their cultural identity, could help motivate young Garinagu to continue learning the language.

There’s another, perhaps unexpected, place Laredo and Ramirez find hope for the future of their ancestors’ culture: TikTok, where punta-rock videos with fresh takes on traditional Garifuna song and dance have collectively garnered 800 million views—and counting.

Stephanie Vermillion is a travel and outdoors journalist, filmmaker, and photographer. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

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