The slave trade that took Africans to the Western hemisphere was one of the most heinous crimes executed by one people against another. Husbands were separated from wives, children from parents, and brothers from sisters. Whole villages were uprooted and force marched across a continent and then stuffed into ship holds where they were chained together and to the walls of the ship.
Those that died were perhaps fortunate as they found relief in the depths of the ocean and a reprieve from sickness and suffering. Those who survived were doomed to a life of slavery and horrors that none of us can imagine. They were treated like livestock; bred for labour and whipped, they lived until they were no longer of use as workers then they would be disposed of. It was no life for a human, yet somehow some of then survived long enough to be freed and their descendants still live in North and South America with varying degrees of rights and freedoms.
In the seventeenth century one ship load of slave bounds for the Caribbean floundered and sunk off the coast of Central America. The survivors of that wreck made their way to shore where they intermarried with the natives who inhabited the coastline from Honduras to Belize. The Garifuna, as they have come to be known, have developed their own culture that is a mixture of their African traditions, Spanish, and the indigenous populations of the areas where they settled. Part of the culture has included certain ceremonies and rituals that have been the preserve of the women, and out of those developed a music unique to the women.
Until now the only music from the Garifuna communities the world has heard has been that performed by the men. Now, after ten years of extensive field research and recordings, Ivan Duran, producer of Stonetree Records in Belize, has released Umalali, featuring the voices of The Garifuna Women's Project.
These women have learned the music and the rituals of their people from their mothers and grand-mothers in an unbroken chain that stretches back to their ancestors who first landed on these shores in the aftermath of the shipwreck which gave them their freedom. The songs that they sing are about their lives; the heartbreak of losing a son, the joy of a new born child, or finding a job.
Part of Ivan Duran's motivation in this project was to preserve these songs; to have a record of them so they wouldn't disappear like so many cultures the world over have vanished. But he also wanted to create an album of music that would be allow other to appreciate the vocal prowess of the women. To that end he has taken the vocal tracks he recorded in various locations throughout the Garifuna community and blended them with music that would make them more accessible to a wide audience. In some instances he has used the familiar sound of Afro-pop guitars, while on other tracks he's added funk or Latin beats.
I have to admit that when I first read that this is what had been done to make this CD it caused me some trepidation. I have heard far too many such efforts, the combing of traditional sounds with modern music, where the original music has been lost underneath a welter of sound that has nothing to do with it. Obviously none of those other attempts had someone like Ivan Duran at the helm His touch as producer is so light and deft that the music he has chosen for the songs supports and enhances the vocals without detracting from their original beauty and power.
What impressed me the most was his ability to leave things alone; most producers these days just don't seem to know when to stop. Listening to the last song on the disc," Lirun Biganute" ("Sad News") where all that accompanies the woman singing is guitar and lap steel guitar, you can really appreciate the job he has done. Your focus is directly on the woman's voice and nothing else, and so even though you can't understand what she is singing about, you can feel her sorrow.
Sometimes when listening to a collection of songs that are being sung in a language you don't understand, you are able to appreciate them only for the music and not for the intent of the song. Certainly there are occasions where a singer's voice will convey an emotion because of his or her expressiveness, but it's not often that you really feel like you understand what's being said. Somehow, the way Ivan Duran has been able to combine the music and the voices on this CD he has overcome that language barrier. You really feel like you are able to understand what the women are attempting to communicate to you.
Umalali by The Garifuna Women's Project is more than just a collection of music, it is also an introduction to a people and a unique culture. If you insert the CD into your CD ROM on your computer you gain access to some special features that include a collection of videos from each of the areas where the Garifuna people settled and you get to meet some of the people involved in the making of the disc. These are a poor people, where life is obviously a struggle against poverty and hardship, yet they take pride in who they are and where they come from.
Like all people in this world with a small population they are struggling to hold onto their culture and with each passing generation fewer and fewer seem interested in carrying on the ways of their fore-bearers. Yet there are still young women in the various villages who seem willing to learn from their mothers and grandmothers so at least among the women the effort is being made to preserve that heritage. After listening to Umalali and all the beauty contained within it, I think it would be a pity if this culture were to simply vanish.
Umalali by The Garifuna Women's Project is a beautiful collection of music, and a wonderful introduction to one of the world's truly unique cultures. Let's just hope there will be future generations of Garifuna women to make more of these CDs for years and years to come. It would be horrible if the world was only to learn of them as they faded out of existence.
(Originally posted April 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.