New York City’s Garifuna community, the largest outside Central America, dances to punta rock at clubs, weddings, even baby showers.
Gyrating hips, bouncing buttocks and fast feet – these are the movements that make up punta, a music genre and dance brought to New York City decades ago by ethnic Garifuna who migrated here from Central America.
Like so many immigrant traditions, though, punta was neglected by the next Garifuna generations, born in the U.S. and raised in the era of television and radio, hip-hop, pop, rock and rap.
Now, 80 years after Garifuna began migrating to the U.S., their music and dance is enjoying a revival – though often in a form fused with rock or other genres. Garifunatv.com, a 24-hour online radio station, plays only Garifuna music. Garifuna musicians are available to play at baby showers, birthdays and weddings. And two clubs in the Bronx regularly feature punta music, which is the mainstay in the repertoire of at least 10 New York City bands and perhaps two dozen solo artists, according to Julian Rochez, who founded Garifunatv.com.
One of the best-known bands is GX Team (G for generation, X for unknown). Band member Alex Ciego, 27, said that most people from his generation never learned the language or the history of the Garifuna people, and yet, “We noticed being Garifuna is what bonded us as best friends in GX,” Ciego said. “GX represents Garifuna from all four countries: Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, so we make sure to always promote Garifuna first.”
The Garifuna are an Afro-Caribbean people from the island of St. Vincent, who were exiled to Honduras in 1796. From there, Garifuna migrated to neighboring parts of Central America – and to the U.S. Community leaders estimate the Garifuna population in New York City to be at least 200,000, which would make it the larges Garifuna population outside of Central America.
According to Julian Rochez, who goes by Don Juleon on his radio station, there are eight Garifuna music genres, but punta is the most popular. It’s played at funerals, wakes, parties and holidays, and it is part of Garifuna spiritual worship of their ancestors.
Traditional punta has just three instruments: drums, maracas and a turtle shell. GX Team adds electronic instruments, such as keyboards, guitar and bass guitar, creating a sound many describe as a mix of Caribbean and African rhythms, with a touch of soca from Trinidad and other Latin music influences.
The result is what is now known as punta rock, which emerged in New York City in the early 1980s with Los Satelites.
At first, this new fusion was refereed to as calypso, which originated with Africans in Trinidad, because the Garifuna didn’t associate it with traditional punta, Don Juleon said.
“In New York, they didn’t call it punta rock,” he said. “Punta was traditional, and Garifuna people never thought they could combine the two worlds in one.”
The name of the genre, punta rock, actually hit the U.S. scene in 1985 with the group Goubana from Honduras. When the Garifuna community heard the group play, musicians in New York City, like Los Satelites, started classifying the music they had already been playing for years as punta rock, too.
“They woke up the whole Garifuna nation with their sound – I was only 12 or 13, but these guys just left the Garifuna community dumfounded,” Don Juleon said.
The GX Team has taken the fusion process of punta rock even further, said Juleon, by adding more electronic instruments and adapting other genres into their sound. One of the band’s musicians, Kevin Ramirez, 26, known as Big Kev, is “the King of punta rock,” said Juleon.
“What Big Kev brings to the table is so advanced that I can’t even explain it,” he said. “The musical arrangements he creates are so sophisticated…you really just never know what he is going to do next.”
GX Team and other Garifuna bands often play at Maximo’s Place and Best Party Place, two Bronx clubs that feature Garifuna bands and draw large Garifuna crowds.
However, GX Team is starting to move out of the strictly Garifuna realm. In recent months they have played at SOBs and the Shrine, Manhattan clubs that tend to draw mixed crowds and big name artists.
GX Team says its work has two goals: to reach out to Garifuna youth and make them feel proud of their culture, while also breaking out of the ethnic genre to make punta rock mainstream. Their efforts to promote and support Garifuna culture will be honored later this month, when they receive the New York City 2012 Band of the Year award from Elite Carib International, a new organization aimed at promoting world music genres within the Garifuna culture.
“We all started playing music when we were young, and now we are just working to find a formula that can take Garifuna music to the mainstream level,” said Ramirez. “Once we get there, young people will hopefully be proud to openly call themselves Garifuna.”