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Music Review: Various Artists – Ibimeni: Garifuna Traditional Music from Guatemala

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Music ethnologists have traveled around the world since the days when wax cylinders were the height of recording technology, collecting examples of music from various cultures. In some instances these recordings have become not only research projects, but records of traditions heading for extinction. Buried in the archives of universities and museums are sound files of everything from Native American healing songs to chants and ritual music from Southern Africa. European encroachment into indigenous peoples' lives and lands and colonial policies of cultural genocide and enforced assimilation ensured that those ancient songs would not be passed along to a new generation and these recordings are all that remains of thousands of years of tradition.

Ironically as technology improved to allow better quality recordings, fewer and fewer cultures remained to be recorded. These field recording techniques have been used in recent years to ensure music that grew out of early North American European and slave cultures is being preserved. While in the United States that has included songs that are as contemporary as the 1930s, in other parts of our hemisphere some of these traditions date back to the 17th century and represent a mingling of imported and native cultures.

Sometime in the 1600s two ships carrying African slaves from Nigeria were shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean, then occupied by two tribes of indigenous peoples – the Arawars and the Kalipuna – called the Caribs by Spanish explorers. Initially there was conflict between the escaped slaves and the natives but eventually they settled their differences, intermarried and created a third people who are now called Garifuna. As colonial masters changed the Garifuna were rounded up by the British to be moved to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. When that in turn was taken from the British by the Spanish, the people were moved again, this time to Trujillo to serve as labourers and farmers.

Garafuna Band.jpgIn 1802 the Spanish shipped some of the people living in Tujillo to Belize to work as woodcutters where they established communities, and gradually more of their people joined them. When Central America achieved independence from Spain, the Garifuna remaining in Tujillo discovered they were now living in Honduras and loyalty to Spain wasn't something their countrymen approved of. This resulted in the mass migration of the people to the communities already established on the coast of Belize.

In spite of their rather harried early existence the Garifuna developed a culture unique to them which emphasizes music, dance, and storytelling and a religion combining Catholicism with African and native beliefs. While many cultures have evolved traditions of dance, music and storytelling, the Garifuna have combined the three elements and refined them significantly so that the music, song, and dance work together to tell various stories. In 1990 Alfonso Arrivillaga Cortes and Byron Sosa visited Garifuna living in Livingston Guatemala to make field recordings, and the results can be heard on a new Sub Rosa release called Ibimeni. The music on this CD was not performed in order to recreate something vanished into the mists of history and barely remembered, it's the sound of a living culture that has somehow survived many hardships and been able to resist assimilation into "civilization".

The rather extensive liner notes break down the different rhythms used in Garifuna music, what they signify, and how they are performed. A group of up to four drums – referred to as garaon, made up of primera (high-pitched) and segunda (low-pitched) instruments – is accompanied by both a solo vocalist and a choir. While the soloist "tells" the story in song, the choir provides emphasis through repitition. Meanwhile dancers respond to the sounds created by the primera to enact the story. Unlike most dances where the dancers become an extension of the rhythm, here they reacting to what the drum "says" as if they were taking part in a conversation.

There are three types of rhythm basic to the music of the Garifuna people: punta, the most common, is used for secular events and some festive occasions; hunguhugu is used specifically for rituals associated with the cult of the ancestors known as Chugu and is accompanied by chants known as Abeimahani; and finally wanaragua is used specifically for a dance that recreates the peoples' battles with the English and is only performed on holidays like Christmas, New Year's Eve and Day, and the Epiphany. Unlike the other dances this is the only one with specific steps and costumes for the dancers, including shell rattles hung from the dancer's knees.

Garifuna Dance.jpgDrums and percussion instruments predominate in the music, and one of the things that struck me most about the music were the similarities with the drumming I've come to associate with Native North Americans. In one religious song, "Wasanriaha", the combination of voices and drums is eerily reminiscent of the sound of a pow-wow drum: a steady heartbeat rhythm accompanied by voices singing near-falsetto chants. Although this is fairly common among the various nations of midwestern North America and has now been adapted by most nations for their pow-wow gatherings, this marked the first time I've heard that distinct combination used by people outside of North America.

During this record you occasionally hear the sound of something called a "marine small trumpet." There's something quite spine-tingling and mournful to the sound, recalling some combination of a conch shell and the sound of a very distant foghorn in the earliest part of the morning. I did notice that its only used in certain puntas and it seemed to depend on the theme. The disc opens with a song that featuring this instrument and the liner notes say the song is known as a "call", and while I don't know what it was originally meant to call, it sounded to me like it was trying to call the day out of the ocean after a particularly foggy night. However, that's probably more my imagination than reality, because if you look at the majority of the song titles – "The Water Has Boiled", "It's Getting Dark", and "Edna's Gold Tooth" – you realize that their music is primarily concerned with day-to-day life:

Like the rhythms, there are also names for the different types of songs and instrumentals performed. Los arruloos (lullabies) and los alabados (Catholic liturgical music) are the two major song types heard on the album. The three instrumental forms are known as la parranda, las bandas, and el pororo and refer to which instruments are performed. The exception is the pororo, as it also refers to a specific type of music played for festivals associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. "Edna's Gold Tooth", a pororo, is played by a band with high and low drums, the marine snail trumpet, turtle shells (used as a percussion instrument), cymbals, and other drums and follows a beat similar to what you'd hear during Mardi Gras celebrations.

All this description makes the music incredibly structured, but you'd never know listening to it. While there are distinct patterns that the music follows, there is also a wonderful amount of energy and passion expressed by the singers, so even songs from the same grouping don't necessarily sound alike. I only wish there was some way that the dancers could have been incorporated and the recording presented as a DVD so we could experience the material to its fullest.

Since these songs were recorded back in 1990, the music of the Garifuna people has undergone popularization and is now being performed in concert hall settings. Ibimeni returns the music to the villages and beaches of the Caribbean where it originated and gives you an opportunity to hear it the way it has been sung and played for the last two hundred years. Like all good field recordings this one has created a record of a sound and preserved it for future generations. Culture has to evolve in order to survive, but its origins should never be forgotten. Recordings like this one ensure that no matter what happens history won't be washed away by the tide of change.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Christy Petillo

    I like the Garinagu culture but I’m trying to speak the language.

  • Doctor B

    How is it that could could review a whole album of what appears to be a various artists disc without mentioning one name of the artists who play on the CD? More than a few of us already know about Garifuna music.