The Mystical Powers of Garífuna Drums
Garífuna men play African-style drums in the streets of Trujillo, Honduras.

Drums play a central role in Garífuna rituals and dances. This is because of their mystical summoning powers. These powers can be traced back to Africa. Drums were used to lure curious natives from their villages onto loaded slave ships. During the long voyage at sea, these drums urged the slaves to row faster and push the fleets forward. Many say that when the drummers dozed off, the rowing stopped. Without this explosive beating, the slaves fell asleep at the oars.

Beginning in 1517, African slaves were carried to the Antilles Islands in the Caribbean. The Arawak and Carib Indians were dying from European diseases. Spanish colonists were demanding new workers for their mines and sugar cane plantations. The Spanish priest, Bartolomé de las Casas wanted to save the indigenous race from extinction. So, he convinced Charles V of Spain to import African slaves to the West Indies. He reasoned that two Africans were worth one Indian. African slaves escaped from plantations or shipwrecks and mixed with the native populations. The result was a new race, the Black Carib.

African drums were taken to the Antilles and played a key role in Black Carib warfare. Garífuna author, Justin Flores remembers his father telling stories about ancient Gar
ífuna drummers. According to these tales, the Black Carib never entered into battle without their trusted drummers. A skilled drummer could single-handedly direct the war. He used the drum to call for a retreat, strike, or other tactic maneuver. A ferocious drum beating could turn any cowardly soldier into a fearless warrior. Since victory often hinged on the drummer, Flores says, "the motto was, 'silence to the drummer, and your battle is half won.'" Special soldiers were trained to protect the drummers because they were the chief targets of enemy attack.

  Lnigi Ma drummers play sacred wooden drums in Triunfo de la Cruz, Honduras. Credit: Drew Irwin, InCorpore Cultural Association©.  

Nowadays, the Garífuna still believe in the drums' summoning powers. Following a death in the community, Garífuna drummers may beat their drums from house to house. This notifies their neighbors of the death and calls the town to the wake or burial ceremony. At the wake, punta dancing and drumming is common. Some say that the drummer beats the drums to summon the ancestral spirits. The dancer communicates with the drummer by following the rhythm of the drums. He/she may fall into a stupor, visited by an ancestor. Others say that this only happens at the sacred dugu ceremony. Regardless, drums hold special importance in Garífuna culture because of their powers to convoke beloved ancestors.

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Credit: K.Stevens; Stanford Center for Latin American Studies; 4/11/00. Bibliography.