Passing the Garifuna Torch

Aurelio Martinez - Laru Beya
Aurelio Martinez

Laru Beya (Sub Pop/Next Ambiance NXA 002, 2011)

It’s been 7 years since Aurelio Martinez’s splendid Garifuna Soul album, and a lot has happened since. The music of the Garifuna, a Central American people whose dual African and indigenous heritage make for some of the most heartfelt, deeply rooted sounds on the planet, has rightly become better known worldwide.

Sadly, the man who was most likely to bring the music ever further, Belize’s Andy Palacio, passed away suddenly in early 2008, shortly after his universally acclaimed release Watina. Palacio was a friend and mentor to the Honduras-born Aurelio Martinez (who was featured on Watina), but Palacio’s untimely death ended their relationship and any possible future collaboration.

Aurelio’s new Laru Beya is dedicated to Palacio and would certainly have done the late master proud. For just as Watina stepped beyond tradition but still respected it, Laru Beya expands upon punta, paranda and other sacred and secular Garifuna rhythms.

Centered on the basics of percussion, acoustic guitar and call-and-response vocals, Garifuna music has also incorporated blues and Latin elements. But a more experimental approach has been taken in recent years, the result of Palacio’s visionary ways and the efforts of the Stonetree Records label headed by Belizean producer and musician Ivan Duran. It was Duran who was behind Watina’s distinctive roots/modern duality, and he provides the same on Laru Beya.

Aurelio Martinez - Photo by Angel Romero
The title means “By The Beach,” which is where much of the album was recorded in a home studio on the outskirts of a Honduran fishing village. Don’t get the idea, however, that the results are out-of-the-way quaint. While there is a homespun warmth to the music, it goes to some unexpected places. Including Africa.

As the liner notes recount, Aurelio had occasion to meet and travel with Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour as well as do some recording in Dakar with N’Dour and his Super Etoile band, a few local youths and the legendary Orchestra Baobab.

The Dakar sessions add festive African roots to the opening “Lubara Wanwa,” a bittersweet paternity tale with vocal asides by N’Dour, the lively title track on which Baobab singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe chime in, the Palacio tribute “Wamada” and several other selections. Plus there’s the added vibe of instrumentation (kora, calabash, xalam, tama, sabar, balaphone) previously unheard on Garifuna recordings. Still, the album is far from a complete Motherland takeover.

Those snared, buzz-toned Garifuna hand drums are prominent, small percussion rattles and clicks away, acoustic guitars pick and strum and voices that are obviously straight from the rural areas of Honduras and Belize sweeten many a chorus. Aurelio’s nimble voice and guitar see to it that tradition is never too far away, even amid the electric twang of Duran’s production style and touches as surprising as bits of Senegalese rap.

And I’ve barely touched the surface. As much as Aurelio Martinez is carrying on the work that Palacio achieved on Watina, he’s also making his own way by bringing Africa and Central America closer together in a collection of songs that are rich in rhythm, bursting with melodic inventiveness and stand as shining examples of how Garifuna culture has touched the world and the world has touched back. Is it too early to start thinking about candidates for the best album of 2011? I don’t think so.

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