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Obituaries / Andy Palacio, 1960 - 2008

Belizean musician championed the vanishing Garifuna culture

January 22, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Andy Palacio, a singer and guitarist whose critically acclaimed music championed the vanishing language and culture of the Garifuna people of his native Belize and made him a cultural icon in the Central American country, has died. He was 47.

Palacio, who also served as an official cultural ambassador of the country, died Saturday in Belize City of respiratory failure after a stroke and heart attack, according to Stonetree Records, which released his album "Watina" early last year.

The recording is widely regarded as one of the best world music albums of 2007.

The joyful, gently rhythmic album recorded with the multi-generational Garifuna Collective created a modern sound from the centuries-old Garifuna culture that is rooted in Amerindian and African traditions.

Last year, Palacio and his producer, Stonetree's Ivan Duran, were given the Womex Award by the world-music industry for working to preserve the threatened folk music of the Garifuna people.

In 2004, Palacio was appointed cultural ambassador and deputy administrator of the National Institute of Culture and History of Belize and actively promoted Belizean art and expressive culture in the former British colony.

He was born Andy Vivien Palacio on Dec. 2, 1960, in the small coastal village of Barranco, Belize. A descendant of the Garifuna, he traced his roots to shipwrecked slaves from West Africa who settled there in the 1600s.

While working on a literacy project in Nicaragua when he was about 20, Palacio discovered the cultural cause that defined the rest of his life.

A chance meeting with an elderly Garifuna gentleman who hadn't spoken his native language in years made Palacio aware that his ancestral language and culture were steadily disappearing through assimilation. Fewer than half a million Garifuna are scattered around the world, and as many as 20,000 remain in Belize.

"It was difficult to find anyone under 50 who could converse in the Garifuna language," Palacio told The Times last year.

Growing up, he had absorbed a variety of musical influences from the radio, including sounds from Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and the United States. But he dived into the language and rhythms of the Garifuna and started performing "punta rock," a modified version of Garifuna music that is pop oriented and synthesizer driven.

"Music, being the thing that I love most, I decided to use music as a medium for cultural preservation," Palacio told National Public Radio last year.

Eventually, he decided that his approach to Garifuna music was too homogenous and counterproductive to his goal of preserving the traditional identity of the culture.

Palacio stripped his music of the electronics and recorded "Watina," which mixes acoustic and electric instruments in a way that remains true to traditional Garifunan music. The album title is a social commentary; "Watina" translates as "I call out" and explores themes of pain, beauty and survival.

The "rootsy" album, wrote The Times' Agustin Gurza in 2007, "is at once joyous, soulful and mystical, quite moving."

Palacio will be given a state funeral, according to Stonetree Records.

He is survived by his mother, brother, sister, five children and two granddaughters.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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