Friday, November 19, 2010

‘LARU BEYA’ by Aurelio- Garifuna Music Lives!

The Garifuna people are one of the most unlikely success stories in the long sordid histories of both the African diaspora AND the Native American genocide. Remnants of an African group mixed in varying degress with local groups of Arawaks and Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, these refugees were long ago relocated to the Central American coasts centered around the not-so-golden triangle where Guatemala meets Honduras and Belize, formerly British Honduras. There these almost-black people speaking an Amerindian language encountered local Maya-descended groups- in addition to other Caribbean blacks and mixed-race Latinos- and have proceeded to extend themselves far and wide. They have also proceededed to establish their own identity and culture based primarily on farming and fishing… and poverty… and music. For most people the notion of Garifuna music starts and ends with one name- Andy Palacio, the musician from Belize who made world music history with the album ‘Watina’ and whose life ended tragically soon thereafter, before he even got to enjoy his newfound fame.

Enter Aurelio, aka Aurelio Martinez, from Honduras, another Garifuna musician and close friend of Andy Palacio. He is fully prepared to carry Andy’s torch, and his new album ‘Laru Beya’ (‘at the Beach’) intends to prove it. Gone are the Latino flourishes that graced Aurelio’s previous work, and gave him some connection to the resources and markets of that genre. Largely gone also are the Afro-Pop affectations that made him something of a cause célèbre within that genre. This album, in fact, could almost be seen as much as an extension of Andy’s work as his own. Instead of Latin ‘spiciness’ or African rhythms instead we have minor keys and soulful laments, punctuated by upbeat numbers of philosophic survival. But if you think that sounds like reggae, you’d be wrong.

The opening song ‘Lubara Wanwa’ is not untypical. This is the slow soulful tearful lament of a woman bemoaning the vicissitudes of love and the absence of her sailor lover long gone to sea. And if that sounds like Youssou N’Dour singing complementary vocals with Aurelio, there’s probably a good reason. The title song ‘Laru Beya’ lightens things up with more of a reggae-like feel, complete with full female chorus line and occasional brass. "In the stillness I sleep. I awake and find that I have dreamt of you. I love you. I love you. I'll be sitting at the beach waiting for you", same scenario but more upbeat feel. I guess it’s a ‘glass half-empty/glass half-full’ thing. The next song ‘Yange’ extends the theme, with the same almost fado-like mournfulness and lamentation, this time over a brother hurt at sea.

Wéibayua’ warns of the dangers of politicians and ‘Ineweyu’ warns of the dangers of sleeping around, all in lively percussion with occasional brass and appropriate mocking tone. This is music in its primordial function as a tool for social order and morality and transmission of culture, no small task considering that, like many dispersed tribal peoples of the world, the Garifuna are separated by national boundaries. Other songs deal with AIDS, immigration, and the price of cassava, but as always the most common theme here, as with almost any album any where any time, is the love between two humans, the spark that ignites larger fires.

The real theme of this album finally emerges on the tenth song, ‘Wamada’ (‘Our friend’) a soulful ballad featuring Youssou N’Dour that mourns the loss of Andy Palacio, and wishes him his rightful place amonst the ancestors in the afterlife.

Nuwaruguma’ (‘my star’)- extends the theme of loss and solidarity and the idea that such phenomena are merely part of a larger order exemplified by the heavens. Faith is always the last refuge of confusion and wonder. Thus the album comes full circle and a lament becomes a eulogy and a renewal of faith. And thus a native people decimated in the Caribbean find cultural survival in the physical bodies of unwilling immigrants who not only meet up again with their Mayan second cousins, but carry their spirit on to the North, in the language of a new paradigm… music. Between punta and paranda and so on and so forth, there’s a lotta’ music emanating from a tiny band of survivors with a base in the Caribbean and a past in the Grenadines… with much of their population now scattered in the immigrant communities of the US, all coasts considered.

This music has DNA from all over, just like the Garifuna people who it so proudly represents. Hybrid vigor rules. The new album is called ‘Laru Beya’ by Aurelio. It’s more than reggae. It’s also being released by Next Ambiance, an imprint of Sub Pop. Remember them? But that’s another story. Check it out.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

MOUNQALIBA by NATACHA ATLAS- Classic Arab on Rai, a la Francaise s.v.p.

Though Frau Merkel may have unilaterally declared ‘multi-kulti’ to be dead, the reality at ground zero of world music would hardly agree. We’re just getting started. You ain’t seen nothing yet. If we ever run out of ex-pats and immigrants, then we can always go to remote foreign countries themselves. And if their particular home-grown genres don’t especially appeal to us, then we can just chop their music up into bite-size chunks for use by DJs and avant-garde producers. Natacha Atlas (نتاشا أطلس) can go either way, something of a perfect example of the macro- and micro-cosm of world music. Of mixed roots primarily combining English with Middle Eastern, she was born in Belgium and has lived in England, speaks five languages (while dreaming in two) and has worked variously as a belly dancer and lead singer of a salsa band, in addition to her main role as a proponent and agent provocateur for the musical sub-genres of ‘world fusion’ and ‘ethno-techno’. That’s about as ‘multi-kulti’ as you get. And oh yeah, her career includes major stints with UK-based Jah Wobble and Transglobal Underground.

Now like haze from a machine, Natacha Atlas emerges from the mists of buzz and rumors to finally arrive on the US stage… she’s long been on the world stage. Considering that we have no shortage of our own music, that’s not so easy, and usually involves at least a short-term sublet in LA (or NY). So her name pops up frequently on the entertainment ‘zines around here with gigs ranging from the Skirball summer series out in the hills to her most recent at the Conga Room downtown. She has a new album out, you see, and is anxious to claim some turf in our collective subconscious. It’s called Mounqaliba.

If her past and her palette seem something of a confusion of styles and sensibilities, then Mounqaliba is anything but. This is a newer more mature Natacha Atlas. Gone are any vestiges of her previous life as a dub/techno artist. When she’s not reconfirming her staus as one of the pre-eminent female Arabic-language pop singers, she’s leaning heavily toward the slower classical Arab songs, lush with strings but not so over-produced like much Arab music. Add to that some English laments and slow French-language jazz and there’s plenty of room for Natacha to spread her wings. And that’s just the beginning.

After a nice piano instrumental as introduction- the nice Zoe Rahman piano refrains weave in and out throughout- the album goes into the song ‘Makaan’, a nice slow Arab number infused with flute and strings. Matrah Interlude’ is a spoken-word monologue on the subject of free will, while ‘Bada Al Fajr’ returns to the soft piano instrumentals that almost define the album. ‘Muwashah Ozkourini,’ a classic Arabic standard, with its piano AND lush strings, DOES define the album. For her one English pop interpretation, she makes a definite departure from previous takes of James Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, instead opting for ‘Riverman’ by Nick Drake. The melancholy fits the mood perfectly.

‘Batkallim’ returns to the Arab theme, but a bit electronica in style, to deliver a heartfelt denunciation of hypocrisy. The title song is another lovely piano/flute soliloquy, the perfect lightweight counterpart to the album’s predominant classical Arab- sometimes heavy- feel. From there it goes into its other minor theme- French chansons, slow jazzy laments- with ‘Le Cor, Le Vent’, a theme echoed with ‘La Nuit Est Sur La Ville’. ‘Ghoroub’ is about as slow and mourning as an Arab song can be, while ‘Taalet’ is more like rai, quick and full of joy. ‘Nafourat El Anwar’ returns to the soft piano and dreamy vocals format to close the album, an overall highly pleasant range of songs.

What makes Mounqaliba stand out as a great album- for me at least-are all the intros and interludes that punctuate the album from start to finish, a full half-dozen of them scattered throughout. In an era when songs go for a buck a pop as often as not, this is significant. These include spoken word, sparse instrumentals, calls to prayers, and market and street sounds. They serve to set a tone for the songs to come. They serve to explain the songs that have just gone. They help to make an album more than just a collection of songs. They help to lift the album from the realm of the ordinary. That’s ‘Mounqaliba’ by Natacha Atlas. Check it out.

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