Music Review: Wátina by Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective
Written by Ann Hagman Cardinal
Published May 01, 2007
I have a confession to make; I didn’t know about the Garifuna people until I discovered this incredible new CD from Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective. This is particularly embarrassing from someone whose family hails from the Caribbean, but it seems I’m not alone.
The Garifuna people’s roots lie in a shipwrecked slave ship in the early 1600’s. Originally accepted by the indigenous peoples of the island now known as St. Vincent, they were captured by the British and exiled to an island off the coast of Honduras. Now the 250,000 remaining Garifunas are spread out, and there is concern that the heart of their culture and traditions are dying out. This remarkable album captures elements of that culture, and really brought them alive for me. Palacio is from Belize where there is a minority of Garifuna people, and he put together this multi-generational ensemble of Garifuna musicians from Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
I first listened to the CD without looking at the English translation of the Garifuna language. The music itself is an elegant blend of traditional Afro-Caribbean sounds but with a modern twist. But I could tell that there are stories being told, and since I have learned far more about life from stories than from any textbook, I had to hear them. I quickly cracked the lyric book.
These are songs that tell tales of racial bias and prayer, of the little things of daily lives, of marital woes and a touch of humor. Some feel dark, or at least gray, as in the beautiful “Weyu Lárigi Weyu,” which asks God for help in troubled times. There is much grief embedded in this piece beneath the Spanish and acoustic guitars. “Baba” is another song that speaks to God, asking for help “out of the impossible.” Its haunting melody and gentle acoustic guitar recall folk spirituals, and the repetitive lyric reinforces it as sung prayer.
The title song, “Wátina,” has a strong Caribbean feel, and the lyrics convey the frustration of the protagonist who is unable to get a ride on the side of the road. Though the liner notes talk about this as being about a “common daily occurrence,” for the Garifuna, the underlying and powerful theme of being judged by one’s appearance, class or skin color is one that many people can understand. The song’s dance-like rhythm balances out the message of the disempowering of the Wátina people.
In “Miami” we are treated to an up-tempo calypso or paranda type beat, but the lyrics tell of the rootless of this oppressed people who are “searching for comfort” as they “have no place.” Beneath its dance melody and deceivingly simplistic lyric lies a frightening story of military harassment and powerlessness. “Lidan Aban” is a cheerful song, the contagious rhythm (the claves—called palitos in Puerto Rico—remind me of my mother’s island) goes straight to your newly swaying hips as the vocals kick in. It is then you understand the energy as it is a rallying song, calling the people of Garifuna to “go forward” and “seek the truth.”
The lovely “Gaganbadibá” is directed to the Garifuna children, encouraging them to listen to their mothers, assuring them that their day will come. It’s delicate but melancholic opening notes are reminiscent of a Sting song, and when the vocals come in, we find the ethnic sound added to the modern backdrop. A soothing lullaby, the strings and rhythms undulate like the turquoise waves of the Caribbean Sea.
“Beiba,” or “Go Away” tells the tale of a man who comes home late after drinking all night to find his wife has locked him out of the house. The electric guitar and strong rhythm of the song (most noticeably the clave) makes this a true blended piece, modern with traditional and lyrics that speak of a problem that can be understood on a universal level.
Though truly beautiful, the Paranda style “Sin Precio” is a difficult song to listen to once you know what is being said. This is a slower song, and the acoustic guitar is haunting, particularly as a back drop to this lament about a woman who must endure being called “worthless” and worrying for the safety of her child. In “Yagane,” or “My Canoe,” The vocals are backed by only rhythm instruments that include drumming on an improvised tabletop. A tale of a man who has capsized on the sea and is calling out for his canoe to return to him, this song has a primal feel, one that seems to invoke magic. “Águyuha Nidúheñu” is a song of loss, of the death of loved ones, preparation for one’s own death and remorse over sins of this world. Similarly, the haunting “Ayó Da” was written for a childhood friend of the song’s composer who disappeared as they fished in the lagoon. The song tells the young man’s family of his death.
But by far my favorite song of the album, the poignant “Ámuñegü” is a musical plea for the preservation of the Garifuna culture. This emotionally potent song tells of how the Garifuna people see the precious elements of their culture dying: the food, the language, the traditions, and music. It calls for preservation, “Lest we lose it altogether.”
I have not taken this CD out of my player for two weeks. I have been listening to it over and over again, its lingering melodies now play in my head day and night, soothing me. One of the first releases from the newly formed Cumbancha record label (formed by Jacob Edgar, a former head of A&R at Putumayo World Music) Wátina is an album of beautiful music that has Caribbean and African blood running through its veins, and its rhythmic heart tells a story of dispossession, oppression and cultural genocide, but with a strong undercurrent of hope that seems to mirror the sentiments of an entire culture.