Umalali's women sing songs of life and death

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      The singers and musicians of Umalali are all Garifuna, a Caribbean people whose story takes us to the soul of Central America.

      One side of the Garifuna bloodline can be traced back to the Arawaks of South America's northeastern coast, who had dispersed widely through the Caribbean region by the time of Columbus. On the island of St. Vincent, they bred with survivors from the 1635 wreck of two African slave ships. The “black Caribs”, as they were called by colonial authorities, were subdued at last in 1797 by the British, and some 4,000 were deported and marooned in the Gulf of Honduras. Many perished, but the remainder eventually settled along the mainland coast from present-day Belize to Honduras.

      Umalali, the band—which plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival main stage on Sunday (July 19), following a Harrison Festival of the Arts show on Friday (July 17)—grew from an extraordinary and deeply moving album of that name, a collection of Garifuna women's songs. The 10-year project was helmed by musician Ivan Duran, who, with his close friend, the late, great Andy Palacio, has helped inject this neglected and dispersed people with new pride and strength.

      A Belizean of Latin origin, Duran stresses that Umalali is about much more than music. “It's about really transmitting the Garifuna culture, and how these tremendously talented women have taken upon themselves to carry the songs up till today,” he says, reached in Belize City. “To me, that's the backbone of the Garifuna story and its survival: the dances, the music, and also the language. Through the years, I've always noticed the women knew more of the songs.

      “None of the singers touring with Umalali ever thought of having a professional music career,” Duran continues. “But these ladies have a tremendous talent. They can kick some ass on-stage, and that's exactly what's happened in every show. The impact their album is having is very, very positive, for Garifuna youth, in particular.”

      Why was the album so long in gestation? “From very early on, I didn't want it to be a traditional ethnomusicological journey through the Garifuna community,” Duran explains. “I really wanted something with a contemporary feel. That's a hard task because a lot of these songs were a cappella, or sung only with drum, so there was no music attached. It had to be created, and it's not like you can throw in any kind of arrangement. It had to feel right—that was the biggest challenge for me. There were many rewritings, rearrangements, rerecordings.”

      On its release in 2007 Umalali was immediately hailed by roots-music critics in Europe. The band—Palacio's old outfit the Garifuna Collective, plus singers Desere Diego, Sofia Blanco, and Chella Torres—came together to bring these remarkable songs to the world. The melodies are bluesy and, according to Duran, have a strong native-Caribbean feel. The rhythms have African and Latin origins. And the lyrics are deeply poignant—simple statements about life and death in the Garifuna communities.

      “We're now working on our next album, a tribute to Andy that will feature the Garifuna women,” says Duran. “In a way, Umalali is a culmination of all the work he and I did. We're all of us on this train—and there's no stopping anytime soon.”