20 March 2008

The Ladies of Garifuna

The momentum of the Garifuna resurgence took a hit with the untimely death of cultural ambassador Andy Palacio in January 2008. Now the movement is continuing without him...and because of him. As important as Palacio was in spreading a knowledge of the rich music and culture of his people, many lesser-known artists are now stepping into the voice. Aurelio Martinez is among them, as are members of Palacio's Garifuna Collective and the women of the Garifuna Women's Project.

Along with that tour is this new album, blending traditional Garifuna songs with modern arrangements. Behind the project is producer Ivan Duran, who also heads Stonetree Records, the Belize-based label behind much of the Garifuna musical revival.

"The project was always about the stories, about the lives of these women, about capturing the essence of their voices and putting them in a modern context," Duran says. "I was looking for songs that people everywhere could enjoy for their musicality and melodies, not just on a purely intellectual level." Much like the music of Andy Palacio, seems to me.

The liner notes give a generous background for each song and provide translations of the lyrics. For example, my favorite track, "Mérua," was recorded following a recording session by Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), who was adding Garifuna drums to some of his songs. Diran, along with singers Chella Torres and Desere Diego, cranked out this funky version of an old Garifuna work song, to which a sax line and guitars were later added.Umalali - The Garifuna Women's Project

[mp3] Garifuna Women's Project: Mérua
from the album Umalali: The Garifuna Women's Project

My only complaint -- which may be too strong a term -- is that the lead vocals often are not prominent enough to really convey the personality of the singer. Granted, this compilation is not about personalities so much as the promotion of Garifuna music in general, but I want to hear a little more of each woman's voice, I want to hear the distinguishing elements that make them stand out in the world of Garifuna singing.

Perhaps the best song in this regard is "Tuguchili Elia," sung by Elodia Nolberto. Backed by a punta rhythm, she sings in her reedy voice about a letter written to a husband who was traveling a long distance away.

Umalali proves that Garifuna music is alive and well, perhaps the best tribute to the life of Andy Palacio and a boon to everyone with adventurous ears.

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