Garifuna Wanaragua traditions
The Garifuna Wanaragua – related to the satirical Jonkonnu (or John Canoe) dances of the British Caribbean – is a masked dance performance that reenacts colonial encounters. In a traditional presentation, dancers travel house to house on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, performing at each location. Drummers and singers accompany the dancers. Dancers form a circle in front of the drummers and singers, and then individual dancers step forward and perform dances. The dancers’ movements include shaking the knees which are adorned with shell rattles, and upper body movements which satirize colonialists. Dancers’ movements are performed in relation to the drumming, enacting a form of call-and-response between dancer and drummers.
This is a community event. At each location, extended family and friends from the Garifuna community gather to view the dancers, drummers, and singers. Some who have danced the Wanaragua in their home villages in Honduras, Guatemala, or Belize, may join in the dancing. For all, this is a commemoration of their ancestors.
Flavio Alvarez learned the Wanaragua as a child from watching his relatives dance and practice in his home village of Labuga (Livingston), Guatemala. Flavio now serves as Wanaragua chief amongst a group of drummers, dancers, and singers in Los Angeles who represent Garifuna traditions from Central America.
Of performing and teaching the Wanaragua tradition, Flavio says, “The Wanaragua is with me every day. For us, this is not just a dance. It commemorates our ancestors. For Wanaragua dancers, our ancestors also dance.
“It is important to keep [Los Angeles-based Garifuna] together. We become a family, and I consider the drummers, dancers, and singers part of my family in Los Angeles. We get together regularly, and like a family, we can count on each other when we need help. In Guatemala, I had an extended family all around me. Here in Los Angeles, I have the Wanaragua group.”
Flavio is a current master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program with apprentice Taija Rae Garcia. The apprenticeship aims to deepen Taija’s skills and understanding of the Wanaragua, including Garifuna history, language, and dance techinque. Taija, whose grandfather was a Wanaragua dancer, has been dancing with Flavio since 2008.
Flavio particiated in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program in 2009 with his grandnephew and apprentice Carlos Gonzales. During the apprenticeship, they worked on Carlos’ dancing techniques and group leadership in the Los Angeles Wanaragua community.
Apprentice Carlos Gonzalez (left, in yellow) stands with master artist Flavio Alvarez and young Wanaragua dancer Omari (kneeling) during the 2009 New Year's Day Wanaragua, a traditional Garifuna community procession of song, drum, and dance. Photo: Sherwood Chen
Alvarez and Gonzales strive to instill Garifuna language and culture in a younger generation of Los Angeles-raised Garifuna-Americans. Photo: Sherwood Chen
A Wanaragua mask by Flavio Alvarez. Photo: Sherwood Chen
Wanaragua headdress vary, depending on which region one may come from. Photo: Sherwood Chen
Gonzales dances Wanaragua in the "flashier and more aggressive" Honduran Wanaragua style to live drumming and singing during the Wanaragua visit to Honduras Kitchen in Huntington Park. Photo credit: Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, 2009.