Festival preview: Garifuna Collective brings music of Belize to Interstellar
EDMONTON – Garifuna Collective may be the most exotic act at this year’s Interstellar Rodeo.
The septet represents the largest-ever tour of musicians from Belize. While they’re justifiably proud to bring their special Central American sound to the rest of the hemisphere, that hasn’t kept them from collaborating beyond their borders or looking to the future. That’s something you catch on to listening to their new album Ayo (on the Cumbancha label).
“This is not about preserving something in a glass box in a museum,” explains Ivan Duran, producer and contributing player with the Collective. “This is about showing the world this is a vibrant culture that will survive because it adapts. Our music is based on the traditional roots and primal rhythms but it has evolved a lot over the last decade.”
The ancestral roots of the Garifuna people go back to a group of West African slaves who were shipwrecked around the island of St. Vincent in 1635, only to settle along the coast of Central America, especially in Belize, where they now number 600,000.
Their songs tend to address everyday life, all bound up in great, hip-swivelling grooves.
The Garifuna’s Canadian connection is of particular significance on this seven-week, 25-city tour. After regular extended visits to Belize over the past decade, Ontario folk-rocker Danny Michel chose to record his last album Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me (Six Shooter, 2012) there with friends from the Collective, with Duran co-producing. In turn, they made him a guest on Ayo, and for the Canadian tour dates they’re performing together, alternating between the Garifuna Collective’s songs and Michel’s tunes.
For Michel, Belize has become much more than a vacation spot. He even headed up a campaign to raise funds for a high school there known as Ocean Academy. Duran admits he was a bit dubious when Michel first proposed the Black Birds album last year but he’s pleased with the musical bonds they have established.
“It’s amazing how the Collective is getting into playing Danny’s songs. I think that’s something a lot of Canadians probably haven’t seen, musicians from outside working with one of their own artists onstage like it was their own music.”
Garifuna Collective works hard on its collective spirit, something you’ll hear upfront in the vocals on Ayo, which almost always come through in a chorus of voices.
“Instead of one person leading the crowd, I wanted it to sound like the village is singing and that’s why all the songs are written by more than one person and the lead parts are divided among two or three singers.”
At the same time, the Collective is fostering some rising solo stars, like Lloyd Augustine and Desiree Diego, who both figure on the album’s cover shot, and on the current tour.
Duran’s Stonetree Records has recorded and licensed the Collective’s music to Cumbancha. Stonetree was founded in 1994 when he decided to document local music veterans who kept the old indigenous sounds of piranda music alive. Some 30 albums later, the focus is on new artists and evolving sounds like those of Garifuna Collective.
Duran also produced the previous Collective release Watina, which featured the group’s late leader Andy Palacio on the cover. World music fans may recall Garifuna’s splendid Edmonton debut at the 2007 Folk Fest, led by Palacio. Much more than just a frontman, the singer played a huge role in gaining recognition for Garifuna culture back in Belize, where he even became the minister of culture. Then he died suddenly from a stroke in early 2008.
“It was a huge blow. In Belize he was a hero, kind of like Bob Marley was to Jamaica.”
As Duran explains, the Collective needed time to regroup and to get back to making music at his studio, situated in the small town of Bengue Vijo, about 130 kilometres from Belize City.
“We took a lot of time to make this record. It actually started about three years ago. Living and working in a small town allowed us an easier pace with fewer distractions and more focus. In the end, Ayo is very much a tribute to him and I think, an uplifting album.”
(Ayo means “goodbye” in the Garifuna language.)
Here, Duran gets to what he feels is unique in the roots sound of Garifuna music.
“It’s less about native instruments but more a kind of vibe, very soulful with a hint of melancholy underneath, but without being down. We want the world to connect with us.”