Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In Review---Andy Palacio's Watina

Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective

Stonetree Records/Cumbancha

Only in his 40s, the musician and preserver of Garifuna culture, Andy Palacio died recently of a stroke. It's true musicians have been dropping like flies lately, with so many passing away from pneumonia, strokes, heart attacks and cancer. In the last couple of days, Cape Verdian vocalist Cesaria Evora suffered a stroke, right before she was going to headline at the WOMAD festival in Australia. (She is still alive).

While the death of a musician to me is always tragic, Palacio's passing on hit both the global music community and the Garifuna peoples of Belize (and beyond), like a ton of bricks falling out of the sky. In a way, you might say that Palacio's journey into preserving Garifuna culture goes back to 1635 when shipwrecked African slaves liberated themselves and found solace on the Caribbean island, St. Vincent. There the African slaves were welcomed by the Arawak Indians and the Garifuna culture was born.

These "Black Caribs" eventually landed in Central America (Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala), but only through more tragic events. Today, according to the liner notes of the CD Watina, "there are roughly 250,000 Garifuna in the world, including immigrant communities in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami." So are you asking yourself why you have not heard of this culture or its music until recently, or possibly until now?

The culture, language and music that Palacio learned as a child was disappearing until Palacio embarked on a mission that eventually led to the production of Watina. When Palacio was 18 he traveled to Nicaragua to help with a literacy program and fortuitous events led to him meeting an elderly man who thought that he was the last link to the Garifuna language.

According to the liner notes, "The elder couldn't believe his ears when he heard the young Palacio greet him in Garifuna, crying out, 'Are you telling the truth?' Andy replied, 'yes, uncle; I am Garifuna just like you,' and the man embraced him and would not let go."

On the recording Watina, we might think we are listening to West African music. Palacio's voice sounds like griot flights. The music on this disc also sound Caribbean, and while listening to the songs here, I imagine the sea, surf and sand. I can see the little thatch hut where the album was recorded with the sea rolling in and out, sending out happy vibrations to those folks in far off parts of the world. After all, the sea played a huge role in the shaping of the Garifuna people and also in shaping the destiny of Palacio's life.

Watina feels right at home with Cuban son, reggae, West African music and other Caribbean music. However, in comparison to other Caribbean music traditions, Garifuna rhythms are gentle, flowing, and warm. The music here does not hit anyone over the head, nor does it scream out language and culture preservation project. Upon listening to this music, we would applaud Palacio and the other musicians that made this all possible, that we would hear a music, language and culture that might have perished under the threat of globalization and homogenisation. (Music is not milk, but the music industry sometimes sanitizes music from other cultures so that its friendlier to pop culture ears).

While Andy is no longer among the earth-based music community, his work lives on; his determination and passion to preserve the ways of his people have become legacy. And we need to ask ourselves, "what exactly are we doing with our lives? Will we leave a legacy behind when our time comes to leave this world?" In that light, Palacio's life and death does not appear to be a tragedy at all; at least not if we get the message his life bestowed on us. And not if we commit to preserving another piece of humanity. God-Goddess bless musicians whose lives extends out far beyond their egos, and into the community-at-large.

For more information about Andy Palacio, go to world music central and rock paper scissors

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