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Standing the Test of Time: Neo–Traditionalism as Neoliberalism in Garifuna World Music

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The encroachment of enclave tourism upon centuries-old villages of Afro-indigenous Garifuna along Honduras’s North Coast presents but one example of neoliberalism’s global ascendency during the 1990s. One way that the privatization of the commons materialized was in the commodification of “minority” cultural practices within nation-states -- what Charles Hale (2005) calls “neoliberal multiculturalism.” Mark Anderson (2013) observes that this “marketing of ethnicity produces the promise of inclusion at the potential price of cultural and territorial rights” (ibid.: 277-78). Garifuna cultural practices are pivotal to the promotion of Honduras as a tourist destination; however, visitors encounter visual art, costumes, music, and dance as forms of entertainment while remaining segregated from surrounding Garifuna communities. As a result, their market value is as “symbolic capital” which traffics in stereotypes and apolitical narratives (ibid.: 291).

I argue that Garifuna music functions similarly as symbolic capital within the world music industry. I examine the success of Garifuna musical neo-traditionalism within this industry during the mid-aughts as contingent upon neoliberal marketing strategies akin to those implemented by the resorts built within Garifuna Central American coastal villages. Dale Chapman (2018) and Jay Hammond (2020) have noted a similar function for neo-traditionalism in present-day jazz scenes, whereby musicians mine past aesthetics and values for new forms of individual branding and new options for consumers. Moreover, the premium placed upon “timelessness” in these cases presents neo-traditional musical practices as a foil to musical styles too “untempered” and “common” (reminiscent of “the commons”) in comparison. Central to the story of Garifuna world music is its development as a preferred alternative to punta rock, which arose circa 1979 as a dance genre driven by youths soon realizing local punta and paranda rhythms on keyboards and drum machines. In contrast, the production of recordings by the Garifuna Collective and Aurelio Martinez from the early millennium until today—dominated by acoustic instruments and featuring time-tested, respected musicians steeped in traditional storytelling—takes a page from the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon of the late 1990s to generate global esteem for Garifuna music and culture.

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