Central American and Caribbean Dance: Tracing African Roots

By Ashley Brown

The Garifuna sing their pain. They sing about their concerns. They sing about what's going on. We dance when there is a death. It's a tradition [meant] to bring a little joy to the family, but every song has a different meaning. Different words. The Garifuna does not sing about love. The Garifuna sings about things that reach your heart (Serrano, 2018).

Central America and the Caribbean are home to a plethora of afro-descendant populations whose culture stems their African roots. Many aspects of Central American culture are influenced by their ancestry and are expressed in many forms. One practice that serves as a strong form of expression is dance. Such traditions include jonkonnu in Jamaica, junkanoo in the Bahamas, gombey in Bermuda, and masquerade in St. Kitts-Nevis, and typically feature groups of costumed revelers dancing to music provided by community musicians (Neely, 2008). Each Central American country has many dances unique to their regions and have been cultivated by Afro-Indigenous populations. Dances like punta or Jankunu, from Honduras to Nicaragua to Belize, there is a rich history of expressive dances that are still practiced in these countries today. 

Honduras serves as a home to one of the largest populations of Garifuna people, an Afro-Indigenous group that were forcibly brought to Latin America. One dance in particular that is unique to this group is punta. Well known for its strong West-African influence on the vigorous rhythm of drumming styles and dance forms, their music is also highly indicative of the African oral tradition of call and response patterns in songs, and allusions to the sacred or ancestor worship (Serrano, 2018).  In Nicaragua, this dance is also known as banguity. The music for punta is performed with traditional instruments of garaon drums, other percussion, and voices. The dance is enjoyed by couples and the focus of the dancers' movements is on the hips which rapidly sway from side to side, but with a slower rhythm than in some other Garifuna dances. (Serrano, 2018). The lower body is responsible for the majority of the movement, as the upper torse remains still during this dance. Women typically wear ruffled skirts or dresses to accentuate the movement of their hips.

The punta has been said to express fertility but could also symbolize pain. It can equally embody aspects of ancestor worship and allude to the sacred. Like other Garifuna music and dance, the punta is thoroughly enjoyed during festive weekend social settings within homes, parks, nightclubs, but also danced on special holidays. A more contemporary form of punta with origins in the 1970s is the punta rock. Though most Garifuna music has remained committed to the purity of its origins, punta rock is a modern version of punta that includes electronic instrumentation. While it is popular amongst some of the younger Garifuna, typically, it is not considered authentic by the purist elders. (Serrano, 2018). Aside from the punta, Belizean Garifuna also perform another dance called Jankunu. This is a Christmastime street-dance processional with carnivalesque variants in the previously noted New World locales (Stone, 2008). Historically, this dance has helped these indigenous populations with the expression of their heritage and sustained their connection to their ancestry.

Ashley Brown is a junior double majoring in English Writing and Spanish, minoring in Africana Studies and Creative Writing, and is pursuing certificates in both Latin American Studies and Sustainability. As an Afro-Honduran, her background influences much of her writing as she centralizes her work around the African diaspora within the Americas and the disparities faced by marginalized populations. In addition, she is the current President of the Latinx Student Association. She uses her position to educate the members of the organization, celebrate diversity both inside and outside of the university, and foster conversations that are vital to the growth and unity of the community. She will continue to use her platforms for advocacy and to shine a light on many of the systematic and societal obstacles faced by BIPOC. 


References

 Frishkey, A. (2016). Garifuna Popular Music “Renewed”: Authenticity, Tradition, and Belonging in Garifuna World Music. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Greene, O. (2002). Ethnicity, Modernity, and Retention in the Garifuna Punta. Black Music Research Journal, 22(2), 189–216. https://doi.org/10.2307/1519956

 Neely, D. (2008). Multimedia Reviews: “Play, Jankunú Play: The Garifuna Wanáragua Ritual of Belize” [Review of Multimedia Reviews: “Play, Jankunú Play: The Garifuna Wanáragua Ritual of Belize”]. Journal of the Society for American Music, 2(4), 599–601. Cambridge University Press.

Serrano, Amy. (2018) "From Punta to Chumba: Garifuna Music and Dance in New Orleans". Louisiana Division of the Arts.

  Stone, M. (2008). Diaspora Sounds from Caribbean Central America. Caribbean Studies, 36(2), 221–235.

 

 

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