CD Reviews – May/June 2012

The new music that is reflecting the region right now

The black caribs of belize

Garifuna: Ancestral Travellers of the Afro-Caribbean

What’s the connection between a small specialist music store on a corner of Broadwick Street, in funky Soho, London and two ships “carrying slaves from the tribe of Mocoes in Benin”, wrecked off the coast of Bequia in 1675?

Soul Jazz Records, who operate from the Bohemian heart of darkness, have carved an important niche not only as purveyors of the origins of black music genres, but also, more recently, as field recorders of some of the Greater Caribbean’s ancestral rhythms. Western popular music, outside of its narcissistic retro mode, always has at least one ear cocked for the new, which is in many instances the old, or even ancient.

Soul Jazz Records have now added another fundamental soundtrack from the Caribbean to the global pool of sounds. The recently released The Black Caribs of Belize Garifuna: Ancestral Travellers of the Afro-Caribbean will hopefully bring what the 2001 Unesco Proclamation of Garifuna language, dance and music as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” has yet been unable to achieve: a global audience.

Within the Caribbean. surviving Caribs – or Kalinago, as they call themselves – are among the most marginalised people, despite all the rhetoric about origins. Most accounts of regional music shamefacedly admit to being able to trace few Amerindian influences, beyond the drum and shac shac.

While we “wine dong” to soca, dance dutty to dancehall, or hop to the latest hip hybrid concocted in the studios of Kingston, Miami or Queens, we turn off our hearing aids to one of the most haunting and unique Creole musics, which has a story that beats all the liner notes I’ve read in life. Garifuna music can move all parts and hearts.

When those two ships sank in 1675, many of the slaves managed to swim to St Vincent. They’ve been swimming ever since, and the Garifuna diaspora they gave birth to when they mixed with the indigenous Kalinago of St Vincent, now numbers some 250,000. In 1797, a couple of thousand survivors of the Carib war of resistance against the British were deported by the same Sir Ralph Abercrombie who claimed Trinidad, and dumped on the mosquito-infested island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras. Again they survived and today you’ll find Garifuna communities in the coastal regions of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, although many have taken the long trek north.

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This Soul Jazz album faithfully records their sacred drum-based musical heritage, popularised by the 2005 album Watina, which topped world music charts, and seemed on the cusp of becoming another Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, before the untimely death of one of its heroes, the Garifuna activist and singer Andy Palacio, mid-world tour.

Soul Jazz presents 17 tracks, some purely instrumental, others with call-and-response lyrics, all driven by the beats of the two traditional drums (the primero, which improvises with the lead singer, and the larger bass segundo) and in some instances augmented by turtle-shell drum set, conch trumpet and sisira, gourd shaker.

The roots of Garifuna traditional music lie in rituals mediating between the living and the ancestors. There are several tracks from this sacred Dugu tradition which includes the Hunguhungu rhythm, along with secular forms like the Wanaragua and Jankunu which accompany the Christmas season festival; the Chumba, Gunjei, Charikanari; and the popular dance form, paranda. The lyrics, sung in creolised Arawak, are starkly simple, making the mundane beautiful.

If you hear echoes of Santería, Vodou or Orisha ritual music in these Garifuna songs and rhythms, it’s no coincidence. The African drum, the oldest instrument after the human voice, and the heartbeat of all races, is still with us.

Simon Lee