The recent release of Landini was the second album for Aurelio Martinez on Real World Records following the successful and highly acclaimed and adventurous Laru Beya, which came out in 2011. For this second release Aurelio and producer Ivan Duran took a fresh approach to the unique Garifuna sound and cultural identity that has become central to both men’s lives. Aurelio says, “I consider this album to be the sound of my Garifuna people. On the previous album Laru Beya 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.”
The experimentation on the preceding album was in large part a result of a significant meeting of musical minds. In 2009 Youssou N’Dour chose Aurelio for a mentoring scheme under the Rolex Mentor And Protégé Arts Initiative. As part of their collaboration, both he and Ivan were able to visit Dakar, where they immersed themselves in the local musical culture, which in part at least is highly politicised. The resulting album featured guest contributions from Youssou N’Dour and also Orchestra Baobab, exploring the connections between the Latin side of Garifuna and the African roots. It brought about something of a new awakening in Aurelio who explains, “The collaboration made me look deeper into my Garifuna music and realize the potential it has and that the projection of an artist is not only in his music but also in his social consciousness.”
That consciousness and sense of Garifuna identity is something he shared with his producer Ivan and also with Andy Palacio, who had been another important voice for the Garifuna people before his untimely death in 2008. Describing his relationship with Andy, Aurelio tells me, “I first met him in 1997 at the celebrations for the 200 year anniversary of the arrival of the Garifuna people in Honduras. We met having the same vision, him in Belize and I for Honduras. Andy was never my mentor, we worked together like brothers and we bonded so well because we shared the same vision. His death hit me hard because we had become one and I felt half of myself was gone. He left us with a big responsibility, to continue taking our music and culture to the world.”
Ivan Duran fills in some of the story and he tells me, “I first met Aurelio with Andy in 1997, he was the youngest of the parranderos that we got to know through a project I was working on trying to record paranda music.” He explains a little more about this unique paranda style telling me, “It’s the only Garifuna music to involve the acoustic guitar. The singers are the troubadours of the culture, the storytellers. They might take personal events or something from the community, so they become the bearers of local news, singing very simple songs that tend to focus on making a single point.” You could say, they act as parables, having strong emotional and moral resonance for the Garifuna people.
As Ivan explains, “When I got involved paranda was on the verge of dying out.” What there was of Garifuna culture had become spread out and the musical legacy had become dominated by what is known as punta rock, a highly charged rhythmic style of music that eventually became very electronic and keyboard based, primarily aimed at getting people dancing. The appeal of paranda by contrast for Ivan was obvious, “I was attracted by the style of the songs the beautiful melodies and the short messages they delivered.” He continues, “Much of Garifuna music had become just about the beat, keeping one rhythm going for hours. So, from a music producers perspective, paranda was much more interesting, but also a lot easier to work with and record.”
A lot of credit has to go to Andy Palacio and Ivan for igniting the paranda flame, which was all but extinct. In many ways it mirrored the struggles of the Garifuna people to retain their unique identity. So much of what they went through has been a struggle that has meant they adapt to survive has been the only option. From the original wreck of slave ships and the merging of survivors into the local Caribbean Indians, through colonial conquest, persecution and ultimately exile.
There is much you can read on the website for Ivan’s Stonetree Records about how connections have been made and the Garifuna spirit rekindled. Whilst Andy played a key role, even as a young man seeking opportunities for literary outreach, inspired by Nicaraguan revolution, Ivan and Aurelio share a deep sense of the Garifunan identity. For Aurelio that meant making music from an early age as he tells me, “I started playing drums and making my own guitars with sticks and fishing line when I was very small. When I was a boy, I would play drums for the elders in the parties.” He continues, “The Garifuna drums are at the center of our music, many of the rhythms have a strong African influence, also the call and response patterns in our singing. There is also a strong Amerindian component in the melodies and off course the language.”
Naturally his involvement came from his parents and he has made clear that his mother Maria is the main influence on his career and in adopting the paranda style, even involving her in the writing process for the album. For Ivan too, his family was important as he explains, “I was surrounded by Garifuna culture form an early age through my parents, it’s what I grew up with.”
But there was also a wider musical world and for Ivan that involved listening to The Stones, Hendrix and more. As he explains, however, with that eventually came the realisation that much of this music was blues based. “It had its roots in the music that came out of the southern states of the USA and once I’d found that, it led in turn to African origins. Then I discovered Fela Kuti and the stuff that peter Gabriel was doing was a big influence.” It was a case of connecting the dots and one of those light bulb moments as he continues, “Once I’d decided to become a musician I realized I didn’t have to travel very far and had all of this in my back yard, a whole history of roots music to explore, but nobody seemed to be noticing it or caring about it.”
It’s as a producer and in running Stonetree Records that Ivan has been able to develop his passion starting the ball rolling with Andy, although, as suggested above it wasn’t easy to begin with. Ivan picks up the story again revealing, “The youth had more or less stopped playing guitars and composing in the paranda style. Andy and I went out into the communities and sought out the parranderos, most of whom were older. Many didn’t even own guitars any more, so we had to take our own, or re-string old instruments on the spot.”
Whilst they learnt a lot and stirred the embers of the Garifuna culture Andy and Ivan realized that a simple Alan Lomax style set of field recordings would not be sufficient. Besides, they were all to aware of the wider music world, so rather than take a purist approach, a fusion sound started to take shape. In the young, charismatic Aurelio, Andy and Ivan recognized a kindred spirit and also someone with talent to spare, a great voice and the potential to help them reach a much wider audience, so they took him under their wing.
By the same token, Aurelio has already made clear his connections to Andy, but talking about Ivan he tells me, “From the first time I met him, we had a bond, and our focus was the same, and he is a musician and a producer that knows the process of making our records appeal to an international audience. He is the person that had the vision for all of these projects.”
Ivan takes me back again, “The music hadn’t really been explored in terms of record making and production. The whole music industry was all centered around punta rock, but that wasn’t what appealed to me, I liked the more laid back sound. All of Garifuna music is really centred on the drums. When you think about it, no stringed instruments survived the slave ships and even with paranda, the guitars were introduced later through the Spanish. When I though about that, I realized there was this great big gap at the heart of music, that we could fill in and experiment with. That was what really excited me in the studio.”
Ivan echoes Aurelio’s sentiments telling me, “Andy and Aurelio are the two musicians who I’ve bonded with the most. We have trusted each other, although it hasn’t always been easy. I know I’ve made mistakes along the way and some of the recordings that I listen back to, I’m not happy. But this has been a genuine search and an attempt to take Garifuna music somewhere new.” He continues, “We knew we had the building blocks, but both Andy and Aurelio trusted me to come at the music with a fresh approach.”
Finally he acknowledges the help of Real World and others telling me “I have to say I’m really grateful when the music started to be released in other countries and we started to get good reviews and positive feedback. It showed we were on the right track and gave us the confidence to carry on.” He suddenly lights up a he reveals, “The great thing was that we started a real revival here in Belize and Honduras and people started coming to the shows, buying the records and singing the songs.”
Ivan then makes a very good and obvious point, “The reason that music is so powerful and everywhere is that it keeps evolving. People can add new ideas to it all of the time. It keeps changing and that’s why we don’t want Garifuna music put into a box and have every rhythm analysed by scholars, we’re more concerned with whether the music makes you want to laugh, cry, dance, how it makes you feel. That’s the import part.” That’s the human part and you can’t fault his thinking. Garifuna culture has always adapted to survive and needs to keep doing that in order to grow as a living entity. As Aurelio has said, “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.” And that ambition is something else that you simply can’t fault.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Lándini is out on Real World Records Now