Recent Symphony Space appearances by Central America’s Andy Palacio Garifuna Tribute Band and the Niger-based sextet Etran Finatawa exposed New Yorkers to languages and cultural perspectives in danger of vanishing altogether before the end of this century. These artists exist specifically to fight that possibility. Practical traditionalists, they allow producers to commercialize their sound just enough to make tribal song forms more accessible to a global audience. As captured on two new CDs—one pairing the desert-crossing Tuareg with the Wodaabe people of the Sahel savannah, and the other the work of Arawak-speaking black Caribbean Indians (who call themselves the Garinagu)—use contemporary recording techniques to preserve ancient melodies, rhythms, and acoustic instrumentation before they’re forgotten.
After their ancestors were brutally expelled from the island of St. Vincent by British invaders, the Garinagu villagers scattered throughout coastal Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. Also known by the Spanish-speaking majority of these countries as the Garifuna, they maintain separate dialects, roles, and singing styles for each gender, being products of gynocentric communities wherein women actually write most tribal songs. The death this January of longtime Garifuna activist Andy Palacio delayed the world tour already planned for last year’s Watina, and now for Umalali, which respectively showcase male and female performance styles. Inspired by Palacio, with whom he’d worked since 1995, Umalali producer Ivan Duran took five years to properly orchestrate his field recordings of female vocals and hand percussion. Mining similar territory, producer Paul Borg recorded the laments and healing chants of Desert Crossing, which Etran Finatawa creates live with electric guitars, unusual calabash drums, and the odilirzou flute.
Less endangered but equally significant are two accordion-based folk traditions: one from Francophone Canada, the other from northeastern Colombia. Whether deployed in tango, baiåo, gypsy-jazz, or vallenato, a funky accordion travels well beside any danceable beat. Blending squeezebox with fiddles and foot-tapping, La Vent du Nord’s Dans les Airs reminds us that many original settlers of “New France” were forcibly displaced by the British. The acoustic quartet recontextualizes the Acadian-Celtic lilt that informs zydeco, Cajun swing, and even bluegrass.
Finally, the 25 Colombian artists collected on ¡Ayombe!‘s 15 tracks deliver examples of all four styles of música vallenata. Variations in tempo and thematics range from romantic down tempos to the superfast puya, with minimal lyrics but virtuosic instrumental improvisation. This richly annotated collection explains how a once obscure and derided musical trend rose, through the skills of its players (and the admiration of famous fans like Gabriel García Márquez), to national and international fame.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 20, 2008