It has been six years since Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective released Wátina, an album that received unanimous acclaim and elevated the international profile of the music and culture of Central America’s Afro-Amerindian Garifuna community. On the cusp of tremendous fame, Palacio passed away suddenly at the age of 47 not long after Wátina was released, leaving many to wonder who would continue bringing the voice of his people to the world.
With the upcoming release of Ayó (“Goodbye” in the Garifuna language), out July 2 on Stonetree / Cumbancha, Palacio’s band proves they are up to the task, and with Wátina producer Ivan Duran of Stonetree back at the helm, they have created a magical album of soul-stirring songs that reflect the rich heritage and appealing sound of contemporary Garifuna music. With a lineup that consists of the best musicians in the fertile Garifuna music scene, The Garifuna Collective promises to carry the torch of cultural innovation and promotion passed on by Andy Palacio far into the future.
Wátina appeared on dozens of 2007 Best of the Year lists in major media outlets around the globe and was roundly praised. Palacio received numerous prestigious awards and toured the globe introducing the world to the appealing and threatened music of the Garifuna. Amazon.com anointed Wátina the “Greatest World Music Album of All Time,” beating out Buena Vista Social Club, Bob Marley, and Fela Kuti among countless others. Palacio was already a national hero in his native Belize when he suffered a heart attack and stroke in January 2008. Palacio’s premature death devastated his fans and community, but the musicians who had accompanied him and the new generation of Garifuna artists he inspired refused the let the story end there.
Indeed, the tale of the Garifuna people has always been one of triumph over tragedy. The history of the Garifuna begins when two large Spanish ships, filled with a delivery of West African slaves, sunk off the coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1635. Half of the Africans survived and intermingled with the indigenous Caribs of the region, creating a new hybrid culture. Fiercely independent, the Garifuna community resisted European colonization, fought a determined yet ultimately losing struggle against the British military in 1796 and were forcibly exiled to the Caribbean coast of Central America, settling in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Some were segregated and held onto their traditions and language, while others were forced to homogenize with the local predominant culture. A minority culture in Central America, the Garifuna have long struggled to maintain their unique language, cultural traditions and music in the face of globalization and discrimination.
While Palacio was a life-long cultural activist who became the face of the Garifuna Collective, the original intention of the ensemble was not to have a particular front man. As Belizean producer, musician and Stonetree founder Ivan Duran explains, “Even during the recording of Wátina, nobody was sure if it was necessarily Andy’s record, but he kept on stepping up and being the voice for the project. The process of making that record was very similar to what we did with Ayó. Everyone was equal, and at the end of the day it truly was a Collective.”
Duran adds, “So what happens now is no, we don’t have that figure, but don’t want anyone to come in and be Andy Palacio. We are going back to the core values of the project, which is to present Garifuna music to the world, not in a traditional way, not in a museum, but as a living musical form. When you listen to the record you feel that spirit of being in the village with everybody singing along, everybody being a part of a song, not following a single singer or star.”
Although there are musical parallels between Wátina and Ayó, there are also many differences that show the progression of The Garifuna Collective. Duran notes, “Ayó has a much more modern sound, not just on a technical level, but also in its approach. There was a little bit more control in the studio with Ayó, and this time we are pushing the limits. This album sounds like it was made by a band; there’s a group spirit that comes across more clearly then ever before.”
In addition to Palacio, the Collective lost two other members in the last five years. The much beloved maraca and turtle shell player Giovani “Ras” Chi was shot in Belize City. Collective member Justo Miranda penned the album’s closing track, “Seremei Buguya”, which expresses sorrow at Palacio’s death, “but at least you went out like a king. When I die, not many people will care.” Ironically a few months after writing the song Miranda passed away alone after a heart attack under a tree in Honduras, and in an eerie echo of the song’s lyrics it was many weeks after his death that his band mates in Belize even heard the news.
Even though they have lost loved ones, The Garifuna Collective’s membership continues to grow. In fact, the group is not a band in the traditional sense; it’s more of a cultural advocacy group. “Anybody can play, anybody can join, The Collective could have five hundred members for all I care,” notes Duran. Musicians young and old are allowed to participate in rehearsals, and the members chosen to be part of the touring group can change depending on circumstances.
One of the singers who made the greatest effort to fill Palacio’s shoes is Lloyd Augustine. Already a popular singer of punta, the upbeat Garifuna dance music that is known across the
Caribbean and Central America, Augustine became one of the group’s most devoted members. Augustine wrote the album’s title song as a farewell to his mentor Palacio. Duran mentions, “Several of the songs on this album were made for Andy. Everybody went through a period in the last five years of missing Andy, and wanting to deliver this record in his memory. I think there is a certain nostalgia that is evident in the songs, even though most are upbeat.”
Another story of dedication is that of Desiree Diego, a singer and maraca player. “She never in her wildest dreams imagined she would be a singer in a band,” notes Duran. “All she knew was that she loved music, and that she had learned traditional songs from her grandmother. She liked to sing, and she had been singing since she was small, accompanied by drums, never a melodic instrument. When she started she had absolutely no idea how to sing in tune with stringed instruments. I remember a few disasters on stage, like starting the song in the wrong key. Nobody ever said to her ‘get out of here you are never singing in this band.’ On the contrary, everybody was very supportive and said listen, ‘try it again.’ One day I told Des she needed to do more than just sing, she had to also pick an instrument, a maraca, a turtle shell, a clave. She picked the maraca and to this day she is my favorite maraca player in the world.”
The Garifuna Collective’s continued growth and development is the direct result of Wátina’s success and a powerful homage to Andy Palacio’s impact. Duran concludes, “Since that album came out, there isn’t any more fear that Garifuna music is going to die out. Andy’s biggest legacy is just showing the way, proving that the world is interested in this culture’s music. It helped children in small villages to understand that their culture is just as important as anybody else’s. That sense of self-pride is a potent message that continues to echo across Belize and inspire new musicians to keep their traditions thriving.” Ayó carries on that mission and reveals that the well of Garifuna musical talent is deep and continues to be refreshed by new generations.
The Garifuna Collective will be touring in the US and Canada this summer, often performing alongside Canadian singer-songwriter Danny Michel with whom they collaborated on the album Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me. The recording, which has already earned a Juno nomination (the Canadian equivalent of the GRAMMY) for Best World Music Album, will also be released in the US by Stonetree / Cumbancha on July 2.