Andy Palacio / The Garifuna Women's Project
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The Garifuna Women's Project
Umalali
Cumbancha (www.cumbancha.com)

Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective
Wátina
Cumbancha (www.cumbancha.com)

There's a reason why many found Wátina at the top of their best world music CD list in 2007. Andy Palacio, and his host of talented musicians including Aurelio Martinez, Rolando "Chichi" Sosa, Eduardo "Guayo" Cedeño and Ivan Duran, have been deemed by some as Belize's version of the Buena Vista Social Club. While that may be going a bit too far, the album itself grooves with introspective, harmonic lyrics, and at times sparse vocal/guitar arrangements that reveal a culture on the brink of losing what it prizes most, its culture. Out of an legendary shipwreck came the Garifuna antecedents, who formed a truly distinct Afro-Amerindian musical style full of longing and its own version of saudade.

Wátina, or "I Called Out" develops important themes such as the search for compassion and awareness. In this case, the singer cannot find a ride because "I can pay my fare but my appearance does not make me look rich." "Miami," with its traditional paranda beat, speaks of a village once accessible but now forbidden. Following this cut is the incredible "Baba," a deceptively simple Garifuna religious song, combining traditional and Christian elements. It's written in a form of 11 bars of 3. The vocal phrasing is complex, yet neither Adrian Martinez nor his back-up singers ever force a word or render the form unnatural. "Gaganbadibá" ("Take Advice") blends tight drumming with entrancing auxiliary studio tracks. Palacio proffers this advice: "My child, you are young / Listen when you mother speaks to you."

The album ends in its consistent minor-key style with "Ámuñegü" ("In Times to Come") in which Palacio "calls out" once again to his countrymen. This time he instructs them to "Teach the children / Our language and our songs; / our beliefs and dances."

While garnering numerous accolades in world music circles, Wátina truly lives up to its hype; it stands in a class all its own. And with the recent tragic passing of Palacio, his message of cultural subsistence, compassion, and the ills of turning a blind eye to injustice will not soon be forgotten.

Umalali is the brainchild of Belizean producer and musician Ivan Duran, who also produced Wátina. In a span of 10 years, Duran doggedly worked to capture the voices of contemporary Garifuna women. The result is a cross-pollination of dynamic vocal tracks, paranda-laden beats and embellished guitar work that extend far beyond simple field recordings, such as those produced by the venerable Alan Lomax. Duran's goal was to bring the women's disparate voices and stories alive in a modern context, and this album, like Wátina, achieves success. Coupled with enhanced CD videos that any enthnomusicologist studying the African diaspora would find valuable, Umalali's historical poignancy is indisputable.

Standout upbeat cuts include the uncharacteristically major "Barübana Yagian" ("Take Me Away") that echoes the spirit of West Africa, and "Hattie," written after the devastating hurricane of the same name. The mother and daughter team of Sofia and Silvia Blanco anchor a host of stylistically varied singers. Eduardo "Guayo" Cedeño provides wonderful raw Manual Galban-esque guitar work on "Hattie" and great Latin acoustic flourishes on "Yündüya Weyu" ("The Sun Has Set").

Duran is generally very conscious not to overproduce. However, on "Mérua" and "Lirun Biganute" ("Sad News"), less would have been better. Julia Nuñez's heartfelt "Lirun Biganute" would have functioned better as an a cappella piece, as the guitar renders her voice out of tune in select spots.

Despite its short, 38-minute runtime, Umalali's CD enhancements and 36-page color booklet (with lyric translations) more than make up the difference. The video content allows the user to click on cities in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize that were instrumental in the production of the album. The streams, each no longer than five minutes, feature the Garifuna women retelling their amazing stories, dancing joyfully while grinding cassava root, and reiterating the importance of sustaining their traditional culture. In addition, drummers interested in learning the basic Garifuna drum lines will find the brief instructional video invaluable.

The material on Umalali as a whole may not be as diverse as that found on the earlier Wátina, but with the infectious paranda beat thumping and the Garifuna women wailing above it all, you have another gem from Ivan Duran. - Mark Strohschein

YouTube video of the interview of Desere Diego (from Umalali)

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