Real World Records has hit 25 years old and continues to work with a selection of unique artists that maintain the label’s principals of musical adventurism. It’s a philosophy clearly illustrated by Aurelio, whose first CD for the label, Laru Beya saw him collaborate with some legends of African music. Now with this second CD, Lándini, the singer and guitarist returns to his Garifuna roots and the paranda style of songs that he grew up listening to his mother sing. It’s a move which proves every bit as spectacular a success as that first CD, with its infectious rhythms and yearning, soulful vocals representing this unique culture’s musical and storytelling traditions.
The Garifuna people are descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak people and form minority populations within Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and in Aurleo’s case, Honduras. Their history apparently stems from the wreck of a slave ship with the survivors integrating into the local Carib population of Saint Vincent. When the Europeans, notably the French, invaded the region in the mid C17th, the mixture of colonial rule, exploitation and the arrival of new slaves led inevitably towards a revolt in 1660. When this was quashed, many of the local population were sent into exile. Further pogroms resulted when the French and English fought over the territories. When the British prevailed, those who were more obviously of African descent were singled out and again forcibly displaced.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, with the migrants clinging to what they knew, the Garifuna culture has survived and retained some of its unique traits, while also integrating with and borrowing from the Latin nations that gave them a new home. For Aurelio’s forebears, that new home was Honduras and it was there in Plaplaya, a small village on a river and without electricity, that Aurelio grew up. He listened to his mother singing and at a young age took up the drumming that is a central part of the sound of Garufina music. Later in life as a passionate advocate of Garifuna culture in general, Aurelio entered politics, becoming the first black congressman to serve in Honduras, even turning his back on music making for a while, until the untimely death of his great friend and Garifuna star, Andy Palacio, brought him back.
On his previous Real World album, Laru Beya, Aurelio tried to capture some of what had been lost between Africa and America. To some degree it came out of a mentoring scheme that allowed Aurelio the chance to study with Youssou N’Dour. The album included collaborations with the Senegalese star and Orchestra Baobab. Here he returns, literally, to the sounds he grew up with, involving his mother in the writing process for Lándini, as she after all was the person who inspired him to sing. In the Garifuna paranda tradition Maria used to make up her own songs, based on her own life, local people or events and at one stage harboured ambitions to become a professional singer. Although never able to live out that dream directly, her musicality is reflected through Aurelio and here he repays her inspiration with this collaboration.
It’s captured in the song Irawini, which translates as Midnight and tells of Maria’s anxious wait for her son to return, while hearing his guitar playing off in the distance.
Even the album’s title, Lándini, refers directly to his home life and the jetty where at the end of the day, the local people of Plaplaya would land their boats. In part at least, however, the record reflects on the international success that Aurelio has enjoyed and he has said, “All the travel made me realize that my real strength as an artist, our real strength as a culture, lies in small Garifuna communities like my home village. The more I have travelled and seen the world, the more I have seen the need to reconnect with my roots – the farther I go, the more I want to come back.”
The paranda style of songs often dwell on local matters and traditionally they are short, often with only one verse. In some cases Maria has come up with a verse and given it to Aurelio, who has then added his own verse to the story. They are often deceptively simple tales that are none the less laced with significance and the album’s producer, Ivan Duran, has said, “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.” Much in the way that the British folk traditions work, songs that do strike a chord are carried on, often being repurposed or adapted to suit the new singer.
That is also true to some degree of Garifuna culture as a whole, which given its turbulent history has been forced to adapt to survive. Musically for example, the guitar only became central to style once the people settled in the Americas, while the traditional percussion, the drums and sisera shakers have remained. The latter gives everything here a lively feel, with the rhythmic pulse suggesting music for dancing, while the guitar too creates circling riffs and occasional, expressive solo lines.
Cutting through the vibrancy is a yearning quality to some of the songs and even a slightly melancholic edge to the vocal melodies, which reflects a duality within the music and the seriousness of the subject matter. Even without understanding of the lyrics, you can pick up some of the feelings contained within. It’s there in the opener Sañanaru, in which Aurelio laments the difficulty of handling a feisty woman, who could be a lover or a relative. The title translates as I Can’t Handle Her. The following Nando, which has a strong Latin feel, almost like cumbia, finds a woman wanting to look good for her husband’s return from work, but also chiding those other women who are perhaps a little less faithful in their intentions.
Milaguru is inspired by a tragedy and the sinking of a ferry with the loss of all on board. It’s down tempo with languorous guitar notes adding a mournful edge as one of the victim’s relatives implores the ferry captain to steer the boat safely to shore. Musically the following Nafagua is an exciting blend of criss-crossing rhythms and call and response vocals and a guitar solo with a springy reverb, which has a strangely effective surf feel, as if Dick Dale has suddenly wandered into the sessions.
The guitar’s whammy bar is used to full effect on the opening of the upbeat and sprightly Nari Golu, which is a gently teasing and playful song from the point of view of a woman who wants money for clothes and so forth. The title track, however, is more wistful, albeit with the same rhythmic complexity and some lovely layering of acoustic and electric guitars. Lirun Weyu then marries a loping rhythm, with another strong Latin flavour to a sad lament from someone who feels alone or rejected.
One of the album’s surprises is Durugubei Mani, which has a grungy menace as the singer complains of injustice, reflecting the history of the Garifuna people. There’s a slight sense of anxiety too in the afore mentioned Irawini, which picks up on the mother’s concerns for her son, as the guitars echoes off in the distance. Picking up again the lively percussion and tempo are maintained through Funa Tugudirugu and Nitu, both of which feature spiralling Afro-centric guitar riffs. In both cases a woman’s honour is at stake, firstly with those who get pregnant at an early age and then with an older sister who the singer feels protective towards. The latter also features more of those long, drifitng guitar notes that glide across the rhythmic intensity below. To finish, the album returns to a the Latin style and concludes with Chichanbara, in which Aurelio turns to the medicinal use of ginger root, whilst suffering the rejection of a woman, who is more interested in worldly goods than him.
Aurelio is a gifted musician and singer, but also a proud ambassador for the unique Garifuna culture and the production and playing create a wonderful complexity to this music, and its unique blend of Latin and African influence, mixed with the paranda song style of the Garifuna making it quite unlike anything else. The album zips by, twinkle toed on frisky rhythms, even as it carries with it the emotional weight of the stories, mapping out the daily concerns of life, things that we can all recognise. Although deeply rooted in history, this offers a future for the Garifuna as that adapt to survive strategy is safely negotiated. The result is a vibrant updating of the traditional songcraft, but above all else a jubilant, musical celebration and joy to listen to.
Review by: Simon Holland
Aurelio – Irawini (Midnight) [Live]
Aurelio – Sañanaru