Before J. King moved to New York 20 years ago, he was a legend in his home country of Honduras. His Punta rock band, Black Fever, had a hectic tour schedule, and their music–featuring the drum-based beat traditional in Garifuna culture–was on most radio stations’ play lists.
When he first settled in the Bronx, King had some success. He played the famed Roseland Ballroom, and had regular gigs at smaller clubs. All that ended in 1990, however, when the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx burned to the ground, killing 87 members of the Garifuna community, and sparking a police crackdown on illegal clubs, including several that hosted Punta rock bands.
Since then, King and fellow Garifuna musicians have had trouble getting work in any of the city’s hundreds of clubs and concert halls, and executives at major record labels won’t entertain their calls or letters.
Their centuries-old sound and culture, says King, is dying.
So in September, he and a group of Garifuna artists, dancers, musicians and writers in New York created the Foundation of Garifuna Artists. The aim: to preserve the culture that was born in the mid-1700s when a British ship carrying slaves from Africa crashed ashore on the island of St. Vincent. The slaves escaped and settled there, some marrying local Arawak and Carib Indians. Ultimately, the Garifuna scattered to Honduras, Belize and Guatemala and, 70 years ago, to New York. Today, as many as 200,000 live in the five boroughs, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
To jump-start the foundation, King helped organize their first major concert–scheduled for Christmas Eve and featuring 16 Punta rock groups–as a first step toward raising the $250,000 he says is needed to start promoting Garifuna music.
“Distribution of records is the single most important thing the Garifuna artists have to achieve,” says foundation member Jorge Marin. As the owner of his own label, Punta Rock Records, he knows how hard that is: Since starting his company in 2000, he has been able to get only 15 stores to stock his eight clients’ albums. Most, he says, are unfamiliar with Punta rock, and he often loans stores CDs “on credit,” until they start selling.
The foundation, says Marin, will help. “It is like a union,” he says. “It guards the rights and interests of musicians,” and helps market artists as a group.
They hope their efforts will help keep Garifuna culture alive in the United States. “Young people identify with other types of music, especially hip-hop,” says Jerry Castro, the foundation’s community liaison. “We want to educate them about what our culture and music is all about…. There is the knowledge of our people written into the songs.”