Aurelio Martínez, a musician from the village of Plaplaya on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, has bridged the worlds of music and politics to bring greater recognition to the Garifuna people. Ultimately, it’s through his art that Martínez has had the greatest impact. Thanks to his work, listeners around the world have been introduced to the traditional music of the Garifuna, the descendents of slaves and indigenous Caribs who settled in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
Martínez, who comes from a family of prominent Garifuna musicians, learned to play the guitar when he was five years old. But the 39-year-old performer and composer always wanted to bring this traditional art form to a mainstream audience—and in the process give his people a long-needed sense of pride in their culture. “Young people don’t have role models within [our] culture,” he says. “My goal is to create some stars.”
He’s now well on the way to becoming one himself. Working with other Garifuna artists, Martínez made the traditional songs “shorter and catchier” to attract commercial interest. His first solo album, Garifuna Soul (2004), sold 10,000 copies and was praised as one of the “top 10 albums of the year” by AfroPop Worldwide, an NPR program.
Martínez’ mission to “…break down the traditional wall and fuse with world music to enter into the international market” has since reaped more success. Two years ago, he was selected by the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative—a program that pairs lesser-known artists with famous counterparts—to collaborate with Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, who was impressed enough to ask Martínez to join him on tour in 2009. Martínez spent three weeks in Senegal, where N’Dour recorded tracks on Martínez’ album (not yet titled), due out this August. “Visiting Africa was a beautiful experience,” Martínez recalls. “I’d always dreamed of returning to my roots.”
The collaboration inspired Martínez to seek out partnerships between other Afro-descendent and indigenous communities. His forthcoming album also features contributions from the Senegalese Orchestra Boabab and musicians from Brazil and Belize.
“The experience with N’Dour [inspired me to] see how we can …work with indigenous communities in Honduras and in the region to expose their cultures to the rest of the world,” he said.
Martínez also found time in his performing schedule for politics. Between 2005 and 2009 he served as a deputy in the Honduran national assembly, the first Afro-descendant from his department to be elected. “I thought it was important to show that Afro-descendents and indigenous communities could affect change from within the government,” he says.
But given a choice, Martínez believes his work as an international performer will have a greater impact on helping the Garifuna people. As he puts it, he’s a “…musician first and a politician second.”