Atlantic crossings

By Alastair Bird

Laru Beya, by Aurelio Martinez (Stonetree Records, STR032)

Aurelio Martinez

Aurelio Martinez. Image courtesy Stonetree Records

The Garinagu people of the Caribbean coast of Central America have received unexpected international attention in recent years, primarily due to the success of the Watina album by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective. Released in 2007, Watina gradually accumulated first critical acclaim, then commercial success. The Belize-based Palacio, who until that point had been largely unrecognised outside Central America, tragically died, aged only forty-seven, in the midst of this success.

The story of the Garinagu, whose culture Palacio had championed, is of a twice-displaced people. The most widely told version begins with two Spanish slave ships, wrecked in a storm off the coast of St Vincent in 1635, while en route to Barbados. The surviving Africans made it ashore, where they encountered the resident Callinago (or Kalinago) population, who were Amerindian Caribs. (Oliver Greene, writing in Black Music Research Journal in 2002, refers to studies suggesting that Garinagu is an Africanisation of Callinago. He further states: “the word Garinagu refers to the people as a whole, whereas the term Garifuna refers to the language, the culture, and a person in the singular form.”) The nature and extent of the interactions between the two groups is a matter of anthropological debate, but some level of cultural exchange is widely agreed to have occurred.

At this time, the Caribs of St Vincent had a history of successfully repelling European attempts at settlement, although early in the eighteenth century the French did tentatively begin to establish a plantation system on the island. For some decades the Afro-Amerindian populations remained comparatively unaffected by the relatively marginal European presence. But then in 1763 Britain was granted control of St Vincent, when the colonial powers signed the treaty concluding the Seven Years’ War. Gathered in Paris, negotiators re-shuffled the colonial pack and re-dealt the spoils of empire. The beginning of British rule saw a period of intermittently intense guerilla warfare between the incoming imperial power and local rebel forces. Several decades of open conflict and uneasy truce finally ended in 1796, after the British killed the rebel leader Joseph Chatoyer. The victors then began to exile the descendants of the survivors of the shipwreck to Balliceaux, one of the Grenadine islands. Here approximately fifty percent of those interned perished due to an epidemic of fever. In 1797 the survivors (a remaining population of around three thousand) were loaded onto eight ships and transported to the island of Roatán, off the coast of Honduras. Finally, the descendents of these survivors migrated to the Central American mainland, establishing coastal communities in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Palacio, who grew up in one of these communities, was for the majority of his career regarded as one of the stars of the punta rock scene in Belize. Punta rock emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s, at a time when young Garinagu were eagerly listening to up-tempo dance music emerging from North America and the wider Caribbean. Local Garinagu musicians were confronted with the prospect of doing little more than performing cover versions of songs by international musicians, if they wanted to retain any relevance to the younger members of their community. What they did instead was take influences from calypso, reggae, zouk, and soca and couple them with an accelerated version of their own traditional punta rhythm. In doing so, they invented a hugely popular new genre that was distinctively their own.

As this new music became increasingly dependent on synthesised rhythms, there were, understandably, criticisms that it was threatening Garifuna culture. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, however, the leading punta rock artists continued to perform a significant proportion of their repertoire in their own language. For this reason, the new genre was significant in sustaining the use of the language among younger members of the Garifuna nation. It was, in this respect, preservationist party music.

In 1995 Palacio met the Belizean producer-guitarist Ivan Duran and in subsequent years Duran’s Stonetree label would release much of Palacio’s output, culminating with Watina. With this final album, Palacio migrated away from punta rock, redefining himself as a more roots-oriented performer. His use of the Garifuna language in his material had always been political for him; now he hoped to foreground more traditional rhythms as well. Duran’s great skill as a producer was to locate Palacio’s yearning vocals and this percussion within a sympathetic instrumental framework that was sufficiently familiar to appeal to an international audience. Working together, the pair apparently unearthed a contemporary Caribbean take on the blues. With Palacio’s death, it appeared that Duran had lost his musical foil; it was therefore an unexpected delight when he was able to pull off the same trick again in 2008, with the Umlali album by the Garifuna Women’s Project. It delivered a Caribbean fado to complement Watina’s blues. Now we have Laru Beya, the second international release by the young Honduran musician Aurelio Martinez.

Martinez appeared as a vocalist on two of the tracks on Watina, and was regarded at the time as one of the rising stars of Garifuna music. He was a close friend of Palacio’s, who had encouraged him to travel regularly to Belize to maintain links between the Garifuna communities in the different Central American nations. He was working on Laru Beya when Palacio passed away, and the album is dedicated to him. The elder of the two friends would, one suspects, have been proud that the younger Garifuna has taken up the mantle of promoting their culture to a wider listenership.

Many of the influences from the wider Caribbean that characterised Palacio’s recordings are, unsurprisingly, present on Laru Beya. The loping drums and keyboards of the title track are immediately suggestive of reggae, while “Yurumei”, a track about the ancestral homeland of St Vincent, has a distinctive soca influence. There is much here that distinguishes Martinez from his old friend, however. Most obviously perhaps, Martinez’s Honduran nationality means that he draws more readily on musical styles from the Hispanic Americas. The opening track, “Lubara Wanwa”, borrows traits from Cuban boleros. Somewhat less obvious is an influence brought to bear after Martinez and Duran had finished their scheduled recordings and Duran was about to start work on mixing the album. Martinez was selected to participate in an international mentor-protégé programme, sponsored by the Swiss watch manufacturer Rolex. Just as recording was finished, the programme yielded the opportunity for Martinez to travel to Senegal to work alongside his mentor, Youssou N’Dour.

The trip to Senegal resulted in collaborations not only with N’Dour himself, but with other artists including Orchestra Baobab and the hip-hop vocalist Sen Kumpe. One is left with the impression that only around a third of the tracks on the album remain as representative of the recording that Martinez and Duran originally envisaged releasing. The other two thirds bear the influence of that transatlantic trip in some form or another.

It certainly isn’t the case that N’Dour has tried to turn this into some sort of vanity project, however. His own contribution is comparatively limited: he duets with Martinez on two tracks. The prevailing sense is that Martinez and Duran remain the core creative pairing behind the album. Duran, once again, deserves credit for bringing everything together on the album as a cohesive whole, particularly in light of the unexpectedly prolonged gestation. Nothing here that originates from the African trip sounds like an awkward afterthought. Everything that has been added seems to contribute to the overall sound of the album. As a producer, he has risen to the challenge of incorporating the Senegalese sessions to assemble a record that is a worthy equal to both Watina and Umlali.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2011

Alastair Bird is an engineer in the oil and gas sector. Currently based in Houston, Texas, he previously lived in Trinidad for five years. During that time he travelled widely in the Caribbean and South America, attending — and, on occasion, writing about — a number of the region’s music festivals and other events.