Workshop, Drumming Session and Free Film Screening at Sputnik May 11

Garifuna people of Belize perform the Jankunu ritual with masks painted to mimic former British oppressors.

The vibrant culture of the Garifuna people will be the focus of an exciting night at Sputnik’s in Coral Bay on Tuesday, May 11.
Another of the St. John Film Society’s “meet the filmmaker” series, the May 11 workshop will feature Oliver Greene and his colorful film “Play, Jankunu Play,” about the music and dance expressed in the Garifuna Wanaragua ritual, Jankunu.

The event, which starts at 5 p.m., will also include a drumming session hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John.

The Garifuna people are descendants of Native Americans of the Caribbean and West Africans brought to the West Indies to toil on sugar plantations in the islands. After being exiled from St. Vincent, the Garifuna were relocated to Central America.

Greene, who has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Florida State University, has studied the culture of the Garifuna since a university advisor mentioned there was a lack of information regarding the culture.

“That was back in 1993 or 1994,” said Greene. “While I was at Florida State, I was in the Caribbean steel pan band and I was in the African drumming ensemble so I told my principal advisor that I wanted to focus on something that was Afro-Caribbean. She was the one who suggested that very little work had been done on the Garifuna and that I could look into that particular culture.”

After reading about the culture, Greene was intrigued and a series of events assured him he was on the right path.

“I read up on them and it sparked my interest,” said Greene. “Then various doors started to open. For example, once I decided to follow this path I went to an anthropologist who had excavated Myan ruins in Belize and she told me all about the Garifuna people along the coast there.”

“I also attended a conference at the University of Northern Florida that was all about the Garifuna culture, music and traditions,” he said. “This was all within a two-month period and it didn’t end there. I was working in a mall in the Tallahassee area and a gentleman of Caribbean descent came in.”

“I happened to mention that I was studying the Garifuna people and he said, ‘are you Garifuna,’” said Greene. “He said, ‘I’m Garifuna.’ He was the only person of Garifuna descent in the whole Tallahassee area and he helped me with my looking at different aspects of the culture and music.”

The Garifuna are a distinct culture retaining their own language, music and rituals throughout their long exile from their West Indian homeland.

“The Garifuna people are a mixture of Native American, primarily Arawak and Caribs, and people from African and West African descent who were brought to the Caribbean to be enslaved,” said Greene. “There was a ship full of West Africans who were going to be enslaved and the ship wrecked in the West Indies. The survivors swam to nearby St. Vincent island and there the Africans intermingled with the Native Americans and this was the creation of the people called Garifuna.”

“They were later defeated by the British in 1796 and exiled to Central America,” Greene said. “First they were sent to Honduras but then they made their way, migrating to Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. They are a distinct cultural group with their own language, cultural practices, foods, dances, music and rituals.”

Today Garifuna people can be found from Los Angels to New York and Chicago, but the group retains its rich culture and elaborate rituals.

Performed during Christmas time, the Jankunu ritual is the focus of Greene’s film. Men in mock European masks dance to beating drums while going house to house throughout their neighborhood.

“The music, dance and ritual are all called Jankunu,” said Greene. “The songs are a form of male social commentary. The distinct feature are these masks and you have to remember the Garifuna had encounters with the British from back in St. Vincent.”

“Then after they arrived in Belize, which was formally British Honduras, they had reason to mimic this group of former oppressors,” said Greene. “The costumes that they wear have wire masks with European faces painted on them.”
In addition to the masks, Garifunas taking part in the Jankunu ritual weave together their African and Native American heritage, Greene added.

“They have headdresses with feathers to represent the retention of their Native American ancestry and they have knee rattles that represent a retention of their African ancestry,” he said. “They also dress in costumes of mostly white shirts with black or white pants and crisscrossing ribbons around their waist which mimic the British costumes.”

The ritual dates back to plantation era times when dancers would travel from one mahogany camp to the next and similar rituals have been discovered across the Caribbean, Greene added.

“Today they go from house to house in the neighborhood and it begins on Christmas Day,” said Greene. “In Belize, where I filmed the documentary, it was believed to have been introduced from Jamaica. There is an older tradition in Jamaica and also similar dances to the Jankunu are common in St. Kitts, Nevis, Guyana, Dominican Republic, Bermuda and even North Carolina.”

Greene will discuss his film and lead a drumming session on May 11 in addition to screening “Play, Jankunu Play.” For more information check out the group’s website at

SJFS’s 2010 spring film series is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.