This could be the year that Garifuna music—created by the descendants of indigenous Caribbeans and West African slaves who were shipwrecked on the island of Saint Vincent 350 years ago—takes off. It could’ve happened back in 1999, on the strength of a beautiful anthology called Paranda (Detour), except that a planned U.S. tour, which likely would’ve attracted media attention, fell through. But now a new record called Watina (Cumbancha) credited to Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective, is making understandable waves, and all the ducks seem to be in a row—the group will perform at Pritzker Pavilion on June 27, sharing the bill with Brazil’s Carlinhos Brown.
Not so long ago, Palacio was trying to transform Garifuna musical traditions, particularly its punta rhythm, into something both modern and unapologetically slick called punta rock. For Watina he assembled a strong cast of important Garifuna figures, and while he’s the face of the project, its the variety those musicians bring that makes the record work. The gorgeous, heavily acoustic music seems instantly familiar, even though it possesses a sound all its own—infectious, syncopated rhythms; lilting, alternately sorrowful and joyous melodies that echo West African lyricism; nifty, piquant acoustic guitar figures.
These days the Garifuna are spread out over Honduras, Belize, and Nicaragua. Among those featured on Watina is the superb Honduran singer and guitarist Aurelio Martinez. He played Chicago last year during the World Music Festival and returns tomorrow with a gig at the Old Town School of Folk Music. His latest album, Garifuna Soul (Stonetree, 2004), nicely represents what’s great about the music, with soulful, declamatory singing, lean but inventive arrangements, and songs that quickly lodge in the brain.