Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective
Douglas Heselgrave's #1 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Gales, shipwrecks, slave boats, cultural scattering, and survival, followed by a fortuitous meeting between ancestors — if this sounds more like a pitch for a new Spielberg epic than the circuitous set of circumstances that allowed for the creation of Watina, the spellbinding new CD from Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, you can forgive yourself for the oversight. This hidden treasure lay buried in the pile on my desk for a long time. Once discovered, Watina proved to be an extraordinary musical journey that takes the listener from Belize to Nicaragua, while making melodic stops at every outpost of the African diaspora that lies in between. Not since Ry Cooder introduced the mainstream world to Cuban music with the Buena Vista Social Club — or when, a decade before that, Paul Simon turned listeners onto South African sounds with Graceland — has there been such a revelatory world music disc.
Andy Palacio’s musical journey began when, as a teenager, he left his native Belize to work on a literacy campaign in Nicaragua. He was on his way by boat to the Nicaraguan city of Orinoco when a storm caused the ship to change direction and look for a port to wait out the gale. The place where they took refuge was a Garifuna village, and Palacio, a descendant of the Garifuna people, was delighted to have the chance to meet some of his ancestors. At the time, he had no idea that this brief meeting would change the course of both his life and his career.
The Garifuna culture began when two large ships, filled with West African slaves, sank off the coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1635. The survivors of the shipwreck landed on the island and started their own colony. Although they successfully resisted colonization, they were driven to the Caribbean coast of Central America. Some were forced to incorporate themselves into the local culture, but small groups managed to hold onto their language and traditions. Palacio was introduced to a village elder who spoke to him in the Garifuna tongue, while he was waiting for the storm to abate. The old man, a Mr. Lopez, was so shocked to find a youngster from Belize speaking Garifuna that he urged him to do what he could to preserve what was left of their culture.
"From that day, I realized that what was happening in Nicaragua — the disappearance of Garifuna culture — foreshadowed what was going to happen in Belize less than a generation down the road," recalls Palacio. "I decided to follow my passion and focus more on performing Garifuna music as a way to keep the traditions alive."
In the decade between his near shipwreck and the recording of Watina, Palacio became involved with the local Belizean music scene, and he became a Punta rock star. Punta rock — a mixture of Central American, reggae, and West African styles mixed with modern synthesizer and keyboard technology — was very popular throughout Central and South America in the 1990s, and Palacio was one of its most recognized proponents. Throughout this period of early stardom, Palacio never forgot his brush with Garifuna culture. Working with his producer, he started to collect songs as well as the names of surviving Garifuna musicians. Finally in 2006, Palacio was ready to return to Nicaragua to try to capture the sounds of this dying culture on tape.
In 2001, UNESCO declared the Garifuna culture’s language, music, and dance to be "masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." As an official who, at the time, was working for Belize’s Ministry of Culture, Palacio petitioned UNESCO to achieve that designation. As a musician with one ear that is attuned to sounds from the past and another that is fixed firmly in the realm of contemporary sounds, Palacio wanted to make an album of Garifuna music that reflected what had come before, yet he also wanted it to be appealing to the modern listener. With Watina, he has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations.
The songs on Watina reflect the ideas of a number of composers who are working within a variety of music styles that collectively illustrate the Garifuna’s contribution to world music. Far from being a dry, academic museum piece — a fate that has befallen so many aggregations of ethnic music — Watina seduces the ear, from its beginning to its end, with a series of exotic acoustic and electronic dance numbers. With Cuban and Central American motifs running through the melodies, some of the songs sound like traditional Latin tunes. Others are driven by reggae and West African highlife rhythms, and they wouldn’t seem out of place on a King Sunny Ade record, though these comparisons ultimately don’t do justice to the material. It is percussive, and it is disciplined, though, at the same time, it also throbs with wild abandon. In the end, Watina contains joyous and uplifting music that exists purely on its own terms, and it transcends any attempts at categorization. It is slinky, tuneful, and direct, and, when taken in full, the selections on the disc sound unlike any other music being recorded in the world today.
Palacio admits that, in the past, he has used many Garifuna melodies and songs in his popular Belizean dance tunes, but he also has stated that the purpose of Watina was to highlight some of the less commercial aspects of the culture’s musical traditions. In pursuit of this, he recorded 75-year-old Garifuna legend Paul Nabor, who on Ayo Da sings about a childhood friend who, six decades earlier, had been killed by a crocodile. Younger composers contributed material, such as Baba ("father") and Amunegu ("In Times to Come"), that explores some of the religious and political concerns of the Garifuna people.
For world music aficionados, Watina is a Rosetta stone. Connections between West African, West Indian, and Latin music, at which other collections merely have hinted, are established and clarified here. This is not to say that Watina is only for serious music students. Anyone who enjoys beautiful playing — the acoustic guitar and percussion that run throughout the disc are breathtaking — and spirited dance music should give the album a try. We certainly will be hearing more from Andy Palacio and his crew before too long. English DJ Fatboy Slim recently returned from Belize and Nicaragua, where he and Palacio worked on a sequel of sorts to Watina that will be geared toward the European and North America dance club market. If Watina and its successor receive the attention that they deserve, a new Garifuna renaissance will be on the way. It couldn’t happen to a nicer culture’s music. So, do yourself a favor, and give Watina a spin. You won’t be sorry. ½
Of Further Interest...
Watina is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box