Dig deeper into the themes and inspiration behind the Honduran singer and musician's third album.
Sat, 18 October 14
Released 14 September 2014
A narrow spit of land arcs into the Caribbean off the coast of Honduras, where a dark-watered river flows into the sea. There, in a small village without electricity, Garfina songwriter, singer, and guitarist Aurelio Martinez first learned music at his mother’s knee.
At the end of the day, villagers would return in their boats to the river landing, setting aside work and relaxing for the evening. They would gather to hear paranda, the guitar-driven music of Garifuna troubadours, who teased and taught, bemoaned and praised community life. Aurelio joined musical gatherings from a tender age, set atop a table by his uncles.
This village, a hamlet named Plaplaya, has become a touchstone for Aurelio, a dedicated Garifuna cultural advocate and musical innovator. In original songs crafted by Aurelio and his mother Maria, as well as traditional tunes, Aurelio returns to the landing place that launched him with Lándini (“landing” in Garifuna), a swaying, bittersweet homage to his beloved home and people.
“I consider this album to be the sound of my Garifuna people. On the previous album, we experimented and collaborated with other artists to reconnect what was lost between Africa and America. This album is purely Garifuna, and the entire spirit of the music reflects the Garifuna experience.”
It was only by putting great distance between himself and Plaplaya that Aurelio began to hear this spirit in new ways. He toured the world, performing his own music and paying tribute to his late friend and fellow Garifuna music advocate, Andy Palacio. Thanks to the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Aurelio spent time with Senegalese Afropop great Youssou N’Dour.
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These worldly experiences led him back to the black river, the beach, and his people. “All the travel made me realize that my real strength as an artist, our real strength as a culture lies in Garifuna communities, in my home village,” reflects Aurelio. “The more I have traveled and seen the world, the more need I have felt to come back and to reconnect with my roots.”
These roots have great capacity for absorbing and transforming outside sounds and ideas. The very origins of the Garifuna lie in a tragic tale of mixing, of cultures that hybridized to adapt and survive. According to Garifuna oral history, the 17th-century wreck of a slave ship brought Africans to the island of St. Vincent, where they intermarried with the indigenous Kalínago and learned their language. Their descendants were forcibly deported to the Central American coast in the 18th century by British colonials. Along the way, the Garifuna absorbed French, English, and Spanish terms—why words like lándini sound so familiar to Anglophones—as well as a plethora of diverse sounds and customs.
“It’s very common in Garifuna culture to incorporate the things that have surrounded us, all the different cultural contacts. They have had an influence on Garifuna cultural development over the years.”
Though it incorporates elements from a wide variety of sources, Garifuna music’s heart beats with very personal, deceptively simple tales. Aurelio credits his mother Maria, who dreamed of being a professional singer, with introducing him to the basics of Garifuna songcraft. Like many Garifuna, she composed her own songs based on community events and her personal experience. She would teach the verse and chorus of the songs to her son, who would then go on to build on the tale by adding another verse, in traditional Garifuna style.
“My mother is the sole inspiration for this album,” says Aurelio. “My mother sees herself reflected in me, to a large degree, the only one of the family who could fulfill her dream of singing professionally. She reminds me of songs, and will give me advice on music and the songs She’s the best example I have in my life of what a human being should be, my main consultant and confidante.”
“Irawini” (“Midnight”) reflects this affectionate, collaborative bond between mother and son. Composed by Maria, it tells of listening to Aurelio play guitar in the distance, as she waits anxiously for his return home one night.
Garifuna songs, be they new or very old, are often filled with teasing humor and straightforward meditations on relationships. They chronicle major events in the life of a community; “Milaguru” is a plea for the captain of a ferryboat that capsized, killing all aboard, to be careful and steer his passengers home. Other songs tell of personal sorrows: the persecution and heartbreak of “Durugubei Mani,” which laments the singer’s persecution by the community, or “Nafagua,” which laments the death of a loved one.
“What’s really important is how the listener interprets a song via his or her own experience,” explains album producer Ivan Duran. “When a Garifuna song becomes popular in the community, it’s usually not because it has a catchy melody or it’s a fun song. It’s because the experience that is conveyed in the song resonates with the listeners’ own experiences.” Songs that resonate are repurposed, transformed over time as singers add new names and places, new thoughts and verses.
In their stark simplicity, Garifuna songs find unexpected depth. They often carry a double meaning that embraces life’s ambivalence, the gray area between love and irritation, between happiness and woe. It’s a combination Garifuna troubadours have refined to streamlined perfection, pairing upbeat, dynamic rhythms with melancholy, heartfelt melodies.
In recording Lándini, Duran, who hails from Belize and has dedicated most of his professional life to working with Garifuna artists, strove to accentuate songs’ double nature, with its complex emotional resonances. Duran’s touches are restrained and subtle, leaving the spotlight on Aurelio and his long-time band’s delicate drive and passionate performances, on the sounds of the drums, voices, and guitars masterfully played by Guayo Cedeño.
A consummate singer, percussionist, and guitarist, Aurelio’s passion flows not only from his love of music, but also from his commitment to the cause of raising awareness and appreciation for Garifuna music and culture, both at home in Garifuna communities and internationally. At first, he attempted to pursue this goal not only via his music career, but by serving as a representative to the Honduran legislature, one of the first persons of African heritage to do so. In 2008, Aurelio set aside this role when Andy Palacio died, in part due to growing frustration with the pace of progress, and to his doubts about how effectively an artist can work inside government institutions.
“It’s an uphill battle,” muses Duran. “Even though we all have a lot of strength left, especially Aurelio, sometimes you don’t know how much longer you can carry this burden. The whole community is depending on artists and spokesmen like Aurelio to deliver this music and message. Aurelio is the chosen one as an individual artist. It’s a big responsibility.”
Aurelio may be frustrated by the way things stand now, but he is not about to give up. “We don’t have the right allies in our own countries who will be our true partners on this journey,” he states. “When we started this process with the first album dedicated to paranda in 1998, this music was completely unknown. The fact that we’re here, touring the world, and that a lot of people know about us makes us feel good. I want this to continue, for more artists to join me and keep this music alive. I want my children and grandchildren to take this music higher, to propel it beyond where we are now.”
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