More than ten years ago, Ivan Duran, a white Belizian, started Stonetree Records to document the music of the Garifuna (gar-RI-foo-nah), one of Central America's forgotten minorities.
Some history: the Garifuna are descendants of African slaves who escaped from a massive shipwreck on the island of Saint Vincent in 1635. The island of Saint Vincent was inhabited by descendent's of a Native tribe from mainland South America called the Kalipuna. They had invaded the island and slaughtered all the men of the Arawak Indians who had lived there and took their women for wives. When the Spanish conquered the Kalipuna/Arawaks they called them Caribe (cannibal). It's the word that gave rise to the term Caribbean. In 1635 two slave ships sank off the coast of Saint Vincent. After the expected bloodshed died down Africans and Natives intermarried and merged cultures to produce the Garifuna. This race of independent black Indians posed a problem for the colonial slave masters, who tried to alternately enslave and deport them. Eventually they were resettled in what is today Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize, the area known as the Mosquito Coast. The United Nations UNESCO arm recognizes their music and culture as a threatened one, part of humanity's intangible treasures. Their language includes words from Arawak, French, Yoruba, Bantu, Swahili, English, and Spanish and the culture is a blend of African, Catholic and Native American traditions. Against all odds, and partially because they have been marginalized due to racism, Garifuna culture still exhibits strong elements of ancient Native American traditions and the rhythms of the African motherland.
Ivan Duran was born in Belize and picked up guitar as a teen. He studied formally in Mexico, Spain, and Cuba at the Escuela Nacional de Música where he took classical and jazz training. In 1993, back in Belize, he began working with Andy Palacio, the best-known musician in Belize. When Duran realized Palacio couldn't record his music locally, he created Stonetree Records. Stonetree records Creole, Maya, and Garifuna artists, but it was the music of Palacio that took the label worldwide. When Palacio's Watina was licensed by Cumbancha Records in 2007, the album caused a worldwide sensation, reaching number one on many international world music charts and giving the music and the culture of the Garifuna more visibility than it has ever had. In the process of recording many Garifuna artists over the years, Duran began to see that Garifuna women, mostly hired as backup singers, knew a lot more traditional music than the men, who often used elements of modern international culture in their music. Duran found the women were the primary culture bearers and the songs they sang, be they traditional or newly composed, sung at ceremonies or in secular settings, contained important cultural messages for the Garifuna community. After more than a decade of research, and with the help of Palacio, Duran put together the music for Garifuna Women's Project, naming the collective Umalali. ("Umalali" is the Garifuna word for voice.)
When Duran set out to record a representative collection of female singers and songwriters, he had no pretense about "preserving" a tradition. Like many traditional cultures, the Garifuna do not separate music into folk and popular, or traditional and contemporary. The same melodies with different words, and the same words with different melodies, pop up all along the Mosquito Coast. Palacio put together a band of backing musicians who brought elements of Trinidad's soca, Jamaica's reggae, and the rhythms of Cuba to the music's modern punta rock and primal Afro/Amerindian styles and the sessions commenced. The women Duran and Palacio chose to record represent a wide cross section of Garifuna styles. Sofia Blanco, from Livingston, Guatemala, comes from a long line of female singers and often performs with her husband Goyo. Her singing is an American echo of the women's vocal music of Mali. Silvia Blanco, Sofia's daughter, knows many traditional songs and composes her own tunes as well. Desere Diego is a ceremonial singer from Belize, who summons the ancestral spirits with her music. She also has a wide knowledge of traditional secular songs. Marcela Torres is from Honduras, Rosa Bermudez, Sarita Martinez, and Elodia Nolberto are singers from Southern Belize. Bernadine Flores is another woman from a musical family; the grand-niece of the late Isabel Flores, a noted drummer, singer and spiritual teacher. Julia Lewis also took part in the sessions.
Several artists from Garifuna Women's Project were set to tour with Palacio on a worldwide tour to support the success of Watina, but Palacio suffered a massive heart attack and died in January of 2008, putting the project on hold. ~ j. poet, Rovi