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Garifuna Blues: Aurelio Martinez and Andy Palacio | reviews, news & interviews

Garifuna Blues: Aurelio Martinez and Andy Palacio

Garifuna Blues: Aurelio Martinez and Andy Palacio

It doesn't even have a label, but could Belize supply the best album of 2010?

Some clues were provided in the middle of one of his more downbeat songs, “Lumala Lumaniga” - “The voice that quiets the silence” - about calling leaders to account, sung in his native Garifuna language, by the thanks he gave to his mother and to fellow singer Andy Palacio, who died suddenly last year, and to Rolex watches.

The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative seems to be an effective arts funding project. It pairs highly talented young artists from around the world with world-renowned mentors for a year of creative collaboration. Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour selected Martinez to be his protégé, inviting the Honduran musician to work and record with him, for stints in Senegal, while N’Dour went to Honduras.  Other mentors this year include Martin Scorsese, Wole Soyinka, and Toni Morrison. N’Dour wasn’t there at the Union Chapel – but the tapes I've heard of Aurelio's album of suggest something extraordinary. (A revitalised Real World, the label set up by Peter Gabriel, is currently the front runner to sign the album.) The sponsorship thing is all done very tastefully. No one was selling Rolexes (or even fake ones) at the door of the Union Chapel.

On Sunday the above luminaries (except Scorsese, who sent in a video) were at a glossy reception at the Opera House, where N’Dour said he hoped Martinez had got as much from the experience as he had (N’Dour was also happy that he’s just finished his much awaited reggae album, recorded in Kingston and Paris, which should see the light of day next spring). Martinez was thrilled – as you might be when your introduction to London happens in front of a crowd including Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Paul Gambaccini, Paul Morley, Gilberto Gil and Charlie Gillett – and those was just the luminaries I talked to. Martinez had just lost his seat a couple of days before as the only Garifuna Congressman in Honduras, but was grinning widely - a man who knows the future holds great possibilities as a musician, even if his political career was over.

Martinez’s mother Maria was at the Rolex bash and also on the end of the front row at the Union Chapel. Her son invited her to join him onstage for a number. She sang a Garifuna song he'd heard in his infancy hesitantly but beautifully. If Martinez’s music sounds familiar but difficult to place, that's because Garifuna music is a reflection of a distinctive mix of African and Amerindian elements which can be found across Central America.

The Garifuna culture is thought to have originated when escaped slaves from a sinking ship ended up in St Vincent in the Caribbean where they mixed with the local Arawak Indians over generations and were often called Black Caribs. They ended up in Belize and elsewhere in 1832, after eviction by the British. Another less likely variant but still a potent myth - which I heard in Belize several times - has it that actually the Africans in St Vincent had actually come to America before Columbus set sail.

The music reflects these influences, and has a certain underlying mystical quality as well - the temples where the Garifuna worship have Indian, African and Christian iconography.

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Martinez’s other thanks to Andy Palacio (above - the title song of Watina - the lyrics refer to not being picked up in a taxi because of being a Garifuna) were due partly because he opened the door internationally to Garifuna music. For Palacio, who was a teacher, his mission was to bring this culture to global recognition. His masterpiece, Watina, had made him into an overnight global success after 20 years of struggle, and intermittent recognition at home. The reviews of the album were unanimous raves - Newsday called it "as revelatory as Paul Simon's Graceland or the Buena Vista Social Club". The Observer Music Monthly placed it among the top 50 albums of the last decade.

The awards flowed in for Palacio and Watina: UNESCO Artist for Peace, the Womex Award, Man of the Year in Belize. At an Andy Palacio concert I met Said Musa, the prime minister of Belize who was excited that Palacio was putting the country on the cultural map. He would later speak at Palacio's funeral.  Palacio died at of a stroke suddenly at the age of 47 just at the moment he was breaking through. His band were ferociously tight after months of touring when I saw them in Belize at what was supposed to be a celebratory homecoming. In fact, they turned out to be the last pair of concerts he ever did – a triumphant show in a basketball stadium. It was an ecstatic occasion.

It was followed by a more intimate night in the King Kassava bar, in Hopkins village where Palacio had recorded Watina in, effectively, a teched-up shack on the beach. The rain poured down outside the bar, but people carried on dancing. He told me that night: "This is a snowball effect of something that started 20 years ago. Garifuna culture was seen as something not worth exposing or passing to the next generation. We've turned a corner, things are changing."

Pumped by one of the all-time great shows (and possibly one too many rum punches) I told Palacio afterwards that the way he connected to his people reminded me of a Bob Marley or a Fela Kuti gig. He had that Man of the People aura that very few musicians have. “That’s a hard pantheon to be included in,” he said. There was even a flash in his eyes of fear for a second, so I apologised. At the time, I took it to be fear of what it might mean to be that kind of people’s champion on a bigger level, a level Palacio might just have reached. When you belong to your people, your life is never your own again.

Palacio wasn’t the only star there – a huge cheer went up for the elder statesman of the Garifuna, Paul Nabor, the 80-year-old singer who is a “spiritual mentor” for Garifuna musicians like Palacio and Martinez. Nador was the first guy I met on the bus laid on for the entourage. After a bit of small talk about being on tour in Paris and Rome with Palacio’s band he told me he lives in an ascetic Garifuna temple and talks about communing with the spirits and healing people through music. Others I met attested to his healing powers. On the beach at Dangriga he fell into a kind of seizure, but managed to convey to alarmed onlookers, who called an ambulance, that he just needed to be back at the temple where he would recover.

There was a preview what was to be the next global Garifuna release (see above video of "Nibari" - "My Grandchild") - a segment of the gig in which various Garifuna women, notably Sophia Blanco and Desere Arana, sang a few songs from an album entitled Umalali while Palacio left the stage. Though less polished then the charismatic Palacio and his band, the singing had real soulfulness and dignity.

Palacio had many local hits in his twenties and thirties with a style called Punta Rock, but these new albums are a departure. “We wanted to concentrate on the more soulful elements of Garifuna music,” said Ivan Duran, the brilliantly accomplished producer of Watina, Umalali and the new Martinez album (Duran co-won the WOMEX Award with Palacio, deservedly so.) He added non-Garifuna elements like guitars and saxophones over the infectious local rhythms – to that extent neither Watina, Umalali or the new Martinez release are traditional albums. But the rhythms, melodies and, above all, the language are what root these extraordinary albums as Garifuna artefacts.

Umalali was a pet project that Duran had been nursing for a decade, recording many women singers throughout Central America. As he recalls, “My first contact with Garifuna women singers was doing Andy Palacio’s first album, Keimoun, then the Paranda album with Paul Nabor. I noticed that all these groups had women on them, singing backing vocals. And I always noticed that there were mostly very interesting voices, interesting tones, and lots of character. Backing vocals in Garifuna music are very important. If you have weak backing vocals, you have a weak song because there’s a lot of call and response. The response is as important as the call.  And I noticed while recording that, in general, the women seemed to know a lot more songs than the men.”

Duran also realised that “there’s something really special about women in Garifuna culture in general. They are the bearers of most of the traditions.  Traditionally the men will go out to sea all day and come back, or go away to earn money. It’s the women that are responsible for life on the ground for everybody. Punta music, which is perhaps the most popular Garifuna form, is traditionally only sung by women. And all famous punta songs are composed by women, and this fact has never been recognized."

A key reason why people are betting on the new Martinez album is that Duran is producing. When I talked to him last weekend, he said it’s his best yet. For those privileged to have met Andy Palacio, there is something bitter-sweet about Martinez keeping Garifuna culture's torch alight in the world, and as importantly, keeping it valued again back home. But it's absolutely what Palacio would have wanted: that had been his life's mission. And being lucky enough to be one of a handful of people actually to hear the much anticipated album in advance, I can confirm that it is a brilliantly produced and joyously sung; it swings with a rare soulfulness and conveys a sense of the Garifuna community. The album of the year for 2010?  Very possibly - and not just in the world music genre either.

As for Palacio, Duran sees his story as a mixture of Hollywood and classical myth – the decades of struggle, followed by an incendiary year of success and sudden death. “It was very strange, and painful – but the spirits wanted Andy. That’s the only explanation I have.”

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this is interesting material on Aurelio Martinez

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