Nobody Listens to…Garifuna Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve made a breakthrough-I’ve discovered that I can put footnotes on this blog.  Additionally, watch this space over the next few weeks for some very exciting and different things I’ll be bringing to the table.  Build the suspense…

I do have a proclivity towards music that’s soothing and seductive on this blog.  I admit that it’s relatively rare for me to profile music that’s abrasive or disturbing (don’t worry, I promise I’ll hit some of these in the coming weeks), and I am happy to say that this week’s installment is no different.  Garifuna music is comprised of several genres, virtually all of which beg the listener to close his or her eyes and sway to the grooves.  This is me writing about music with my eyes closed.

My knowledge of Garifuna music comes in two waves.  I first heard Garifuna songwriter Andy Palacio’s brilliant 2007 album Wátina when my good friend and brilliant Ethnomusicologist (now teaching at Rollins University in Orlando) Eric Bindler referred me for a listen.  I actually came across the music and culture of the Garifuna people again in my last semester as an undergraduate Ethnomusicology student while co-authoring an edited volume about Shamanistic practices.  I contributed a section on spirit possession ceremonies and music’s role therein among Garifuna people, and in the process uncovered even more beautiful songs.  I will borrow occasionally from that prior work throughout this piece.

The Garifuna[1] people today largely live in a number of communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The people who today identify as Garifuna share a language and culture, and trace their ancestry to West African slaves who escaped a shipwreck on the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent and intermarried with Carib and Arawak Amerindians living on the Island.  After struggles with French, British, and Spanish colonial powers, the Garifuna resettled along the coast of Central America in a number of largely homogenous villages, the largest being the city of Dangriga, Belize, the founding of which is celebrated nationally in Belize as “Garifuna Settlement Day”.  While the vast majority of Garifuna live in their original settlements in Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, sizable expatriate diaspora communities have formed in the American cities of New York and Los Angeles.   Most Garifuna are practicing Roman Catholics (there are small Rastafarian and Muslim minorities), but Garifuna additionally adhere to a traditional shamanic belief system dating back to their early years on St. Vincent.

Specifically the music of the Garifuna is typified by large rattles and drums that reflect the generations-old blend of African and Amerindian ancestry, and the beats of these percussion instruments traditionally play a role in communication between the physical and spiritual worlds. In the present day, Garifuna music is typically represented by a genre called punta and its blend with Latin American rock and pop.  Punta is an interesting genre in itself, and a number of artists have of late moved towards a sort of traditional version of the music, as preservation of a minority immersed in communities across the Caribbean coast of Latin America has become a necessary focus.  Hand in hand with UNESCO’s declaring Garifuna music important intangible heritage in 2001, production of “vintage” Garifuna music has given the world several fantastic albums of a music that is recognizably Latin while marking itself as unique.

These albums that have been produced almost feel like amalgamations of Latin American folk music.  Releases such as Andy Palacio’s Wátina, his friend Aurelio Martinez’ 2005 debut Garifuna Soul, and The Garifuna Women’s Project seem to independently parse a clave rhythm here and a soloistic vocal melody there to bridge Cuban son and Brazilian bossa nova through music that actually predates both.  The Garifuna language is beautiful, and the creole-ized pieces of Spanish, Carib, and African languages that have found a home in that lexicon flow wondrously over the slowly strummed guitars and thick grooves of the songs.  That almost no one speaks Garifuna only adds to the appeal; while Palacio in particular has penned fantastic lyrics about social problems and cultural preservation, a great many listeners will know only that the voices sound important and plaintive.  In a way, to hear such a rare language recorded and crystallized for eternity is a huge victory for a relatively small cultural group, and knowing this gives the vocals a bittersweet quality that the listener is probably reading into too much.  The joy and longing of a people increasingly connected only by history, music, and a somewhat commercialized spirituality translates seamlessly to make a style of music that is great for simply listening to.

It is truly a happy surprise to witness the emotional and musical range of the new “traditional” Garifuna recordings.  Palacio’s album takes the listener from the slowly persistent chugging of “Baba” and “Ayó Da” to the upbeat and highly syncopated “Lidan Aban“.  The title track is a paradox of midtempo call-and-response and staccato start-and-stop drumming.  Aurelio Martinez takes a darker turn with many of his songs, rushing from a near-whisper to a yell over moodily plucked acoustic guitar and Garifuna drumming.  To move in a completely different direction, the Umalali release titled The Garifuna Women’s Project takes older Garifuna women accustomed to performing a capella and provides the same spacious guitar-and-percussion accompaniment to great effect.  Time and time again the music pulls the listener to a scene on a Belizean beach, punctuating songs with an electric guitar solo or a chorus backed with smooth saxophones.

Andy Palacio worked the angle of cultural preservation of Garifuna culture and language through their music to great effect, but sadly did not live to see its benefits.  Less than a year after the release of Wátina, Palacio passed away from health complications after suffering a stroke and heart attack.  The singer was forty-seven years old.  Since Palacio’s death, the mantle of Garifuna cultural ambassador has largely been taken up by Aurelio Martinez, who has released an album of Garifuna-inspired music as recently as 2011, and of late has also gotten involved in the politics of his native Honduras.  The small size of the Garifuna diaspora makes tracking the musical movement as a whole difficult, but the songs are still present and still yearn for the close-knit communities Garifuna were known for by European colonial powers.  No one is listening to Garifuna music right now, but the unique path these people have taken through history has produced songs that are perfectly indicative of where they’ve come from.


[1] The Garifuna are sometimes referred to as “Garinagu”, as in a classical text by Oliver Greene.  In the years since Greene’s paper was published the Garifuna have shifted away from the Garinagu moniker as they feel it was a colonial designation forced upon them by the British.  As such, I will refer to the people as Garifuna in this work.

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Nobody Listens to…Rupa & the April Fishes

It’s the first Thursday of 2013 and I am back! I hope this is the first of a continued stream of regular essays here and not a one-off return.  In any case, we’re back to regularly-scheduled “Nobody Listens to…” posts this week, presenting San Francisco’s grassroots global outfit: Rupa & the April Fishes.

I’ve been listening to Rupa & the April Fishes since they made an appearance as a showcase artist at the 2009 Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.  I regretfully didn’t catch all of Rupa’s set, but what I saw and heard was captivating, and I picked up a copy of their first full-length album that weekend.  I’ve since spun the band’s songs on college radio shows and watched the group perform on French television.  The seductive fusion of understated grooves and laid-back melodies from around the world that the band presents has left me eagerly awaiting the chance to lie back and simply listen to anything Rupa & the April Fishes care to present.

The story of Rupa & the April Fishes really begins with lead singer Rupa Marya’s childhood.  The daughter of Punjabi immigrants to the United States, Marya was raised at points in the U.S., France, and India.  By adulthood, Marya was passably fluent in four languages and studying Biochemistry and Post-War Political Theater.  As though penning and performing socially-conscious folk music influenced by the local music and languages of the diverse countries she had visited weren’t enough, since the early 2000s Marya has been a practicing physician in the San Francisco Bay Area (in her time off from touring as a musician, obviously) and has served on the faculty of the University of California-San Francisco’s medical school as a professor of Internal Medicine.  With all of these experiences in her back pocket, Marya began performing on street corners and San Francisco cable cars with cellist Ed Baskerville in the mid-2000s, and quickly rounded out a whirling band of musicians that included trumpeter Marcus Cohen, Bandoneon player Adrian Jost, drummer Aaron Kierbel, and bassist Eric Perney.  By 2008 the group had recorded and released their debut album, eXtraOrdinary rendition, and quickly began ruthlessly touring North America.  Taking their name from a French expression that is akin to the American exclamation “April Fools!”, Rupa & the April Fishes have since endured numerous lineup changes and released two more albums, 2009’s Este Mundo and 2012’s BUILD.  Currently settled with Marya and Kierbel joined by Safa Shokrai, Misha Khalikulov, and Mario Alberto Silva the band is defined by truly global acoustic arrangements and multi-disciplinary projects that bring together people of interests and talents just as diverse as the roots of the group’s songs.

Rupa & the April Fishes have cycled through so many musicians, languages, and geographically specific folk musics that to describe the band’s ‘sound’ succinctly would be nearly impossible.  At this point Marya’s breathy and expressive voice is the most defining characteristic, and the singer does an impressive job articulating her thoughts beautifully in at least five different tongues throughout the group’s discovery.  Underneath Marya’s voice is her guitar playing, which frequently takes a backseat to the whirling cloud of noise the band produces; amidst the racing accordion and horn lines of the ensemble the guitar is almost exclusively an instrument of rhythm, softly strumming or stabbing upbeat skanks in between the melodic and harmonic lines of the band.  Kierbel’s drumming is also a constant, and the percussionist has proven himself highly adaptable in turning on a dime from quick-stepping ska grooves to spacious accompaniment for French chanson charts.  Stepping in and out on tracks from each of the band’s three LPs are upright bass, numerous species of tastefully-applied accordion, trumpet, clarinet, and stringed instruments, all of which contribute to a music that could be just as at home in Bogotá as in Paris as in Bucharest.

It does seem that with each album Marya and company have pushed the envelope further with syncretic blends of global folk genres.  On eXtraOrdinary rendition (an album name Marya says came from a desire for listeners to google the term and find information about the United States’ practice of extrajudicial transfer of detainees) the listener is greeted with a chanson song based around an Argentine bass line in “Maintenant“; surprisingly danceable folk romps in both French and Spanish in “Une Americane à Paris” and “Poder“, respectively; a dreamlike Indian raga sung in Hindi in “Yaad“; and a lighthearted reflection on a dream of seafaring ease as the album closes with “Wishful Thinking“.  The group turns to more Latin flavors on the Spanish-titled Este Mundo (This World), with comparatively more numbers sung in Spanish and a few tunes in definably Latin genres; “Soledad” is a sensual cumbia featuring a guest verse by rapper Boots Riley and “La Estrella Caida” is probably most easily called a rumba.  Este Mundo still does, however, retain many of the hallmarks of chanson songwriting, as in the French-language “La Rose”, the vamp-y “Trouble“, and the album’s pensive title track.  Perhaps the most evident new flavor added to Este Mundo may be the ska and reggae influences on tracks such as “Culpa de la Luna” and “La Linea“, an idea that is carried directly into the band’s newest release, last year’s BUILD.  On the new record the band has made a conscious shift to lyrical content (primarily) in English, and this is evident in the more conventional folk-rock and reggae of standout tracks such as “Firewater”, “Inheritance”, and “Gone”.  The group still retains their global sensibilities, however, and among the standout tracks are the Brazilian-tinged “Electric Gumbo Radio” and the transcendent bilingual reggae of “Weeds” and “Cochabamba”.  At each turn, Rupa & the April Fishes unleash music that is approachable and easy to listen to, wheezing accordions and ringing percussive bells surrounding the listener in exactly the ambience the band is looking to form as a setting for their work.

As soothing and seductive as Rupa & the April Fishes’ music is, the lyrics speak to a different emotional set entirely.  Many of the songs the band performs take up the charge for the causes its members support in efforts off of the stage, from a seed exchange to promote grassroots farmers to an artist’s residency in southern Mexico that seeks to give voice to “invisible” indigenous people.  Marya herself has tied her identity as a physician into her lyrics and artistic endeavors as her songs accompany efforts to provide undocumented workers and global travelers with free or low-cost healthcare.  Rupa & the April Fishes have songs that touch on populist movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, and when the singer touches on feelings of love it’s more often a humanitarian care for and understanding of her fellow man or woman than a romantic desire (though those emotions can also be found in the group’s lyrics).

The powerful good that Rupa & the April Fishes have done and are continually planning as an activist arm of their musical outfit is astounding.  Partnered with nonprofit organizations and seeking prestigious grants and awards to promote their social outreach plans is a fantastic path for a band to take, and that the music that serves as a source of this outreach is both appropriate and great to listen to only makes the group more likeable and important.  Marya’s undeniable talent as a singer and songwriter and her impressive resume do a good deal to keep the listener dialed in actively with the group, and with each release the band seems to widen its scope even as they associate individual tracks with tangible humanitarian efforts in the U.S. and abroad.  The group is represented here online at their official website and on facebook, though perhaps the best way to connect with the group would be attending a live show.  No one is listening to Rupa & the April Fishes at the moment, but the organic and alluring blend of global folk genres that reflect a desire to better the world in real and measurable ways makes this group quite deserving of a listen. And maybe some seeds.