[Sad update: Andy Palacio passed away unexpectedly of complications from a heart attack on January 19, 2008. His legacy will live on in the hearts of all who have been inspired by the profound music of the Garifuna people. The world is mourning.]
The tale of Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective traces its roots to the early 1980s, when a teenage Palacio traveled from his home in the Central American country of Belize to Nicaragua to serve in a literacy campaign. Palacio is Garifuna, a unique culture based on the Caribbean coast of Central America that blends elements of West African and Native Caribbean heritage. Andy was told that Nicaragua’s local Garifuna traditions and language were all but extinct. He was en route via boat to the Nicaraguan village of Orinoco to begin his first literacy assignment, when a storm forced a change of direction, leading to a surprise encounter that had a lasting impact on Palacio’s music, career, and life mission. The legacy of this life-changing meeting lives on in the music of Wátina, a stunning new album featuring an all-star, multigenerational lineup of Garifuna musicians from Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras that will be released by the recently-formed record label Cumbancha on February 27, 2007.
The Garifuna people originated when two large ships, filled with a delivery of West african slaves, sunk off the coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1635. Half of the Africans survived and intermingled with the indigenous Caribs of the region, creating a new hybrid culture. Fiercely independent, the Garifuna community resisted European colonization, and were forcibly exiled to the Caribbean coast of Central America. Some were segregated and held onto their traditions and language, while others were forced to homogenize with the local predominant culture.
To avoid his own mid-lagoon shipwreck, Palacio’s boat captain decided to take a detour to a nearby village until the storm passed. He said to Palacio, “There is a Garifuna man in this village. You should talk in your language and see how he reacts.” When the eighteen year-old Palacio greeted the old man, Mr. López, in the Garifuna tongue, the elder replied in complete disbelief, “Are you telling the truth?” “I told him, ‘Yes, my uncle; I am Garifuna just like you,’” explains Palacio. “He embraced me and would not let go. He could not believe a man so young could speak Garifuna, having imagined the language would perish with him.”
“From that day I realized that what was happening in Nicaragua, the disappearance of Garifuna culture, foreshadowed what was going to happen in Belize less than a generation down the road,” recalls Palacio. “I decided to follow my passion and focus more on performing Garifuna music as a way to keep the traditions alive long into the future.”
At first, Palacio became a local star of Punta rock, an upbeat Garifuna dance music infused with synthetic beats and keyboards. The Punta rock movement of the ‘90s was in keeping with trends established by successful world music artists such as zouk pioneers Kassav who blended the latest studio technology with their traditional music. But that was not to be Palacio’s ultimate musical course.
“Under the direction of my producer Ivan Duran, I made a 180 degree turn,” exclaims Palacio, in his lilting, Caribbean-inflected English. “And I am so happy now to take a completely human experience onto the stage as opposed to where I saw myself heading in the mid ’90s with samplers, sequencers, and instrumental backing tracks. I look back and I cringe. I don’t feel a need to be devoid of technology, I do not want to become a slave to it.”
Belizean producer and musician Ivan Duran has spent the last ten years seeking out and recording what he calls “the soulful side of Garifuna music.” He says, “We’re not doing the strictly danceable material of Punta rock, where the lyrics are basically ‘Shake up your waist and dance!’ The fascinating thing you will notice about the styles we are doing is that the beauty is in the simplicity. Garifuna songs may only have two lines, and if you transcribe them, you still do not get the full meaning. But a good Garifuna song is like a photograph. It captures a moment in time; a split second of someone’s life.”
Each track on Wátina is based on a traditional Garifuna rhythm and all of the lyrics are in the Garifuna tongue—a unique and endangered language whose root is Arawak influenced by Carib, French, and, possibly, West African languages. In 2001, UNESCO declared the Garifuna language, music, and dance Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. As an official within Belize’s Ministry of Culture at that time, Andy Palacio played a role in securing that proclamation. Today, Palacio is one of those rare musicians with one foot in the world of cultural diplomacy and another foot on the performance stage. His new album brings together his dual passion for the safeguarding of culture and making modern music tied to Garifuna roots.
The songs on Wátina are overflowing with powerful messages and symbolism that speak to the need for the Garifuna to cherish and celebrate their heritage. “Garifuna music in recent times has been popular for punta and parranda; dance oriented music forms for carnival or the dance floor,” says Palacio. “But on this album we’re bringing attention to songs that aren’t like that. ‘Weyu Larigi Weyu,’ for example, which means “Day by Day,’ uses a rhythm extracted from ritual music called dügü, a traditional healing ceremony that unites family members from all over Central America. It is a prayer asking God’s blessings for our people and asking for guidance, strength, and healing in an afflicted world.”
“Ámuñegü”—which is Garifuna for “In Times to Come”— asks “Who will speak to me in Garifuna in times to come? Who will perform the dügü? Who will perform the arumahani song in times to come? We must preserve Garifuna culture now, lest we lose it altogether in times to come.”
Palacio is joined by 75-year-old Garifuna legend Paul Nabor on “Ayó Da,” a song which Nabor wrote 60 years ago to tell the family of a friend that their son was lost on a fishing trip on the river. “All Garifuna songs are very personal in that sense,” says producer Duran. “They are all true stories. This song is how he broke the news to everyone. He doesn’t say it in the song, but Paul told us he thinks that a crocodile ate his friend. The song title simply means ‘Goodbye.’”
Another song, “Baba,” was composed by a young Garifuna songwriter named Adrian Martinez. “‘Baba’ has become like an anthem performed in every Garifuna church,” Duran explains. “It talks about fate. Baba has many meanings: Father, Father as God, and it also could be an ancestor from your family who has died. Ancestors play an important role in Garifuna culture.”
Palacio and Duran are part of the Garifuna Collective, a loose community of musicians that grew out of Belize’s leading record label, Stonetree Records. Duran, who was born in Belize to Catalonian parents, founded Stonetree in 1995 after studying music at the Escuela Naciónal de Música in Havana, Cuba. “The Collective is the culmination of years of defining what I think is the more emotional part of Garifuna music.”
“I started Cumbancha precisely so I could help bring wider exposure to exceptional artists and projects like Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective,” says Jacob Edgar, the long-time head of A&R at Putumayo World Music and founder of the new Cumbancha record label. “I’ve been fascinated with Garifuna music and culture since I was a budding ethnomusicologist doing field work in Central America in 1989 and ’90. When we selected tracks for the 1999 Putumayo collection Caribe! Caribe!, we included Andy Palacio and I made a personal connection with Ivan. I was really impressed with Ivan’s passion and talent. We also included an early version of the song “Baba” on Putumayo’s Music from the Chocolate Lands. The beauty and emotion of that song and the others that are part of the project moved me to my core, and I wanted to be a part of this special production.”
In February of 2006, Edgar went to Belize to meet with Duran and Palacio to review rough mixes, offer his opinions, and experience firsthand the ambiance of Belize and particularly the Garifuna village of Hopkins where much of the initial recording was done. “I even got to play conch shell on one of the songs!” exclaims Edgar.
“I am really very proud of how we recorded the album,” says Duran. “We spent a few months in a cabin right by the sea in a small village working with all the musicians, developing the arrangements from scratch. This music does not exist in its natural form. You can’t go to a club and listen to this. What exists is a very raw form. You might hear some of the rhythms at a beluria, a kind of wake. And you hear people singing with a lot of emotion, but not necessarily ‘in tune.’ Everyday people keep this culture alive. They are like you and me, just in the community, making music everyday. So we wanted to capture that spirit while paying close attention to high quality production values and the essence of Garifuna songs and music. We took the time to make sure each musician that came in understood each song.”
“Knowing what not to do is just as important,” Duran continues. “I never want the listener to hear the production work; just to appreciate the music for what it is. A Garifuna song is very basic: short, simple lyrics, and one rhythm. Very rarely will it have a bridge like a pop song. A typical formula would be to put in a bridge to expand it. An outside producer would say ‘Let’s add a guitar or a saxophone solo,’ and most likely that would be a studio musician with no connection. We used a great lead guitarist from Honduras, who is always working with Garifuna musicians, but I still made sure he spent time with us on the songs as opposed to sending him digital files.”
Duran is spending countless hours on his next project, also several years in the making. Umalali, the Garifuna Women’s project, which will be released by Cumbancha in the not too distant future, was the result of countless auditions of the best Garifuna women singers and working closely with them to revive their voices in the musical tradition.
“Knowing this music inside out… that is what I feel most proud of,” concludes Duran. “This is what I know best and is exactly what I wanted to do all along. I have spent ten years working with these musicians. And I hope that the time spent on this results in an album that sounds effortless and fresh. We want to share this with the world without any artificial ingredients.”