Saturday, April 25, 2009

Garifuna Soul

Garifuna Soul

     Throughout their four hundred year history, the Garifuna people have earned a reputation for their sense of pride in their unique community. Created in the early Seventeenth Century when the survivors of two sinking slave ships swam to the Belizean shore and began cohabitating with the indigenous Arawat tribe, the Garifuna became a culture unto itself, unlike any other. They were persistent in keeping outside influences at a distance, which helped maintain a close-knit society, complete with a unique language.
     Today, less than two thousand people in Central America speak Garifuna as a primary language and the numbers are diminishing. Garifuna music has become a wonderful vehicle to help preserve the culture on a whole and to put it on a world stage. A predominant voice in a new generation of its musicians has been Aurelio Martinez, whose project Garifuna Soul is a nice microcosm of the culture. The project is in continual flux, with a variety of talented people making contributions at different junctures in time. Martinez has released an album by the same name, which is also a reflection of the ever-changing project. Recorded for the storied Stonetree Records label out of Belize, Aurelio has utilized a number of musicians, including a few lead vocalists other than himself, to allow every participant to put their own signature on the work.
     Aurelio Martinez was born near La Ceiba, Honduras in Plaplaya, a small town that still has no electricity. By the age of six, he was playing percussion in front of live audiences. He built his own guitar at the age of eight and moved to La Ceiba at fourteen to study music. Traditionally, Garifuna music is played at social functions or contains lyrics that revolve around the citizens or events in a community. Garifuna Soul is a nice slice of that lifestyle. 

Aurelio on tour
     Drawing on his musical family and heritage as major influences, Martinez has endeavored to modernize the music, even including a little Spanish guitar that “seeps” into the mix. Using no less than twelve different musicians for this collection of traditional and original scores, Garifuna Soul strikes a nice balance. Prevalently featured on the disc is Rolando “Chiche Man” Sosa, playing guitar, bass, percussive instruments, saxophone and providing background vocals. Stonetree’s founder Ivan Duran contributes sideman work on a variety of guitars, including the Maya K’ekchi’ guitar.
     The album was recorded at Sandy Beach Resort in Hopkins Village in Belize and the comfortable surroundings permeate into the music. The lyrics are personal and touching, with topics ranging from a son sitting on a beach at sunset, awaiting the return of his father, to a town festival, and even death itself (“When I die, sing me my song/So that I may go, never to return for a verse/So this is how the sun sets”).
     Aurelio Martinez has a real sense of community. He is the first Garifuna to be elected to the Honduran congress and takes great pride in representing the indigenous people in that country who formerly had no voice in their government. His pride in his community is also apparent in his musical work.
     In Guanacaste, “Garifuna Soul” and all Stonetree CDs are available at Jaime Peligro in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Nuevo Arenal where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. All comments concernng this article are welcome.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Andy Palacio Watina

Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective

   The Garifuna have a legend about their genesis that claims that Pre-Colombian Western Afrikaners sailed to the Caribbean coast of Central America to coexist with the indigenous peoples there. Conventional history suggests that when two European slave ships sank near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1635, the survivors swam to shore, where they cohabitated with the natives there, known as Arawaks. However it occurred,  the descendents of these people are now called Garifuna, as is their now-threatened culture and unique language, a mixture of Arawat, African and Spanish. One of the offspring of this lineage, Andy Palacio, is from the coastal Belize village of Barranco. In 1987 he moved to London to work, upon invitation, with the Cultural Partnership, Ltd., a community-based organization committed to the preservation and documentation of Belizean music. In 1991, Palacio recorded his first solo album, “Keimoun“, on Stonetree Records for the label’s producer and president, Ivan Duran. He also received the Best New Artist Award at the Caribbean Music Awards and later hosted a television music show in Belize. Since that time, Andy has visited Garifuna villages in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, tooling and broadening his musical scope.

   The result of this research has come to fruition with “Watina“, the first CD by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, on the Cumbancha label. The music on the disc is a distinctive blend of Caribbean, Latin and Afrikaner music, heavy on the backbeat. In an exclusive interview, Cumbancha founder Jacob Edgar explained to me that he had lived in Costa Rica in 1989 and 1990 while in college. He played trumpet with several local bands while in San Jose, including one with guitarist Edin Solis, who would go on to found three-time Grammy winner Editus. He also met Ivan Duran and “we hit it off. Later when I was at Putumayo, I was able to get some Stonetree tracks onto Putumayo discs. I had been made aware of Garifuna music in San Jose and recording this album is a perfect example of why I started the Cumbancha label.” So, the making of “Watina” has been something of a culmination for Jacob Edgar as well. He even played a conch shell on one of the songs for the CD!

   The new disc was recorded over a four month span by a multigenerational group of musicians, some who had worked with Andy on his first CD and others he had admired but never played with before this. The actual recording took place in a thatched-roof cabin by the sea in the village of Hopkins, Belize. The result is incredible. Traditionally, Garifuna songs reflect everyday occurrences, backed with distinctive drums, called “primero” and “segundo”. “Watina” is a celebration of living, tinged with a melancholy toward the everyday challenges of life and mixed with cries of hope and individualism. The music has an organic, wooden percussive sound to it, the ethereal harmonies ranging in and out of the spotlight. The very themes of the songs, such as the last three on the disc, “Aguyuha Niduhenu (My People Have Moved On)”, “Ayo Da (Goodbye My Dear)” and “Amunegu (In the Future)” indicate the temperament of the CD and the Garifuna culture as well.  As Andy Palacio says, “Music is the soundtrack that we live to”.
   As is the trademark of the Cumbancha label, the packaging of Watina is impeccable, including a book of lyrics printed in English and Garifuna. In Tamarindo, the Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective CD is available exclusively at Jaime Peligro, where they will gladly sample the disc for the customers.All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Manuel Obregon - Mangore


     In my Merriam Webster’s collegiate dictionary, “dedication” is defined as “the act of committing to a goal or way of life.” I find both options of this definition as an appropriate description for the musical career of Manuel Obregon. He is one of the three founders of Papaya Music, Costa Rica’s preeminent music label. A classically trained pianist, Obregon is the musician among the three partners. But I think he should also be referred to as a music historian or musicologist as well and this is where the “commitment to a goal and a way of life” comes into play.
     The accomplishments that Papaya Music has amassed in just seven short years speak for themselves. The company has done no less than an amazing job of preserving Central America’s diverse musical past while, at the same time, opening the doors of exposure for a new generation of talented and budding musicians from this area. As a result, Papaya Music has literally become the standard for other music labels to emulate.
Manuel Obregon
     In 1999, prior to embarking on this lifelong venture of passion, Manuel Obregon recorded an album entitled “Mangore”. Recorded in Germany and mastered in New Orleans, the disc is a compilation of scores written by the revered Paraguayan guitarist Augustin Mangore (1885 – 1944). A child prodigy, Mangore began performing in public at the age of thirteen and writing original compositions by the time he was nineteen. His main musical influences were classical, religious and the indigenous Guarani, of which he was a descendent. During the latter half of his career, in fact, Mangore’ insisted on performing only in Guarani costumes. The list of his admirers includes Maestro Andres Segovia, for whom Mangore performed a private concert, and John Williams, who has proclaimed Augustin as “the purest guitarist ever”. And, of course, Manuel Obregon.
Augustin Barrios Mangore
    Obregon transcribed the songs for his CD, written specifically for the guitar, so that he could give his renditions of them on piano. In that sense, it is similar to “Piano Malango”, Obregon’s most recent CD, which is a collection of songs that represent a history of Costa Rica through its songwriters. A key part of both these discs is Manuel Obregon giving his interpretation, his twist, to the original scores. Nearly a century has passed since Augustin Mangore created his own, personal style of music that was a poetic fusion of his influences. On this nearly one hour disc, Manuel Obregon has successfully channeled his interpretations, his unique variations on the theme, to create a new sound on the piano, different than Mangore’s original works. Included in the arrangements are the classic masterpiece “La Catedral”, the folkloric “Danza Paraguaya” and the challenging “Gran Tremelo”, where Obregon plays an unbridled interpretation.  A project of this magnitude could not be propelled without passion and dedication. Merriam Webster would be proud.
     Unfortunately, “Mangore” has been out of print for several years. A recently unearthed limited amount of copies are available at Jaime Peligro in Playa Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. Any input concerning this article is welcome.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Micheal Sims: Paiinted Oxcart

The Painted Oxcart

     Since early in the Nineteenth Century, the oxcart has been a versatile vehicle of transportation as well as recreation in rural Costa Rica. It has been used to relocate entire families and literally every variety of goods this country has to offer. But it is the elaborate, varied and colorful artistic designs of these vehicles that distinguish them from oxcarts from any other Latin American society.

     In her new book, “The Painted Oxcart”, Michael Sims traces the history of the Costa Rican oxcart and how it came to be a tradition to decorate them so uniquely and elaborately. She alone is responsible for every bit of the extensive research it took to compile this book, taking all the photographs and writing all the text as well. Ms. Sims relocated to Costa Rica more than thirty years ago. She currently has her own line of jewelry, called Costa Rica Creatures, teaches a handicraft workshop in Tortuguero, an art workshop for at-risk kids in San Jose, and art classes at the European School in Heredia. Busy gal, Michael Sims.

     It was in the art class in Heredia in 2001 that she gave the students an assignment to design their own oxcart, bearing each child’s personal design. After visiting several Costa Rican book stores, Michael was surprised to discover how very little had been written on the subject of oxcarts. Ultimately, the kids used postcards as models for guides, and the idea for the book was hatched.  During her research, Michael discovered an entire cultural history revolving around these carts, including the expected photographs, of course, but an extensive history of poems and songs as well. The book opens with a history of the migration of the oxcart, following the industrious vehicle from its introduction in Argentina, then north through South America, into Panama and north through Central America, into Mexico and even California. At one time, there was such an intense use of the vehicle that it became enough of a thriving industry that taxes were levied on the boyeros, or oxcart drivers.

     The middle and bulkiest section of Ms. Sim’s book is devoted to the culture and legend of the oxcart. And it is in this section that the reader is able to view the romantic tie-in of the vehicle with Costa Rica’s history, eventually evolving into a symbol of the Costa Rican lifestyle. And it is in this “beefy” section that the most detailed, colorful and varied photos are displayed.

     The third and final section of “The Painted Oxcart” describes and documents the evolution of the oxcart, looks at the history of its assembly practices and has a very nice glossary of Spanish colloquialisms and slang based around the oxcart, in all its implications. Michael Sims has found her niche, and has chosen to share that passion with the public in a satisfying way.

     Signed copies of “The Painted Oxcart” are available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Playa Tamarindo, Nuevo Arenal and Quepos.All comments concerning this article are gladly welcomed.