Published: Mar 25, 2010
In warm weather, late at night and in the dark, we listen to Watina, the masterpiece by Andy Palacio and the Garufuna Collective. I wrote about this CD when it was released in 2007, and I quickly decided it was the World Music CD of the year. Some of you snapped it up. A few of you wrote to thank me. In January of 2008, with praise from many critics ringing in his ears, Andy Palacio suffered a massive stroke and heart attack, and died. He was just 47.
I’d badly underrated this music in 2007. “Watina” is not just one of the best CDs of a random year; it’s one of the best CDs, period. Of course it’s easier to appreciate the greatest musician to come out of Belize when it’s summer, and you have some beach time, and your world is reduced to shades of blue and khaki; you can hear the religion, you can welcome the acoustic instruments and the hand drums. But even more, you can be dazzled by the purity — songs of daily life, performed in a language in danger of extinction.
It’s like music from another planet. You’ve never heard anything like it.
The back story: In the 1700s, West African slaves were shipwrecked on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. They intermarried with Arawak Indians and lived peacefully until the English forced them into exile on a small, resource-poor island off Honduras. They moved to the mainland, where their identity has blurred over the centuries. Now there are just 11,500 Garifunans living in Belize — and the Garifunan language, which is taught in only one village there, has been designated by the United Nations as among the "masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity."
Andy Palacio once modified his culture’s music so it would have wider appeal. But the threat that it might become extinct encouraged him to return to his roots. And so he assembled all-star Garifunan musicians in a thatched-roof shack on Belize’s Caribbean coast and spent four months with that band, playing endangered music deep into the night.
It’s not reggae, though reggae is its cousin. It’s not African music, though Africa pounds in its blood. It’s 12 songs, a mosaic of subtle harmonies, led by a singer who can tap deep emotions. It’s hope and frustration, resilience and small triumphs, an irresistible invitation to get up and seize all the pleasure you can. Not you’ll understand a word of it — you’ll feel the rhythm and just know.
It takes a lot to make Americans listen to music recorded beyond our borders. We probably would never have come to love Buena Vista Social Club if renowned musician and producer Ry Cooder hadn’t conceived the idea of a CD made by Cuban musicians so old they predate Castro and if Wim Wenders hadn’t made an award-winning documentary film that turned seventy-year-olds who were unknown to Americans into brand names.
Andy Palacio didn’t have Buena Vista’s advantages. He was from Belize, the least-populated country in Central America. His music celebrated a culture known to maybe five American Caucasians. And although his record company couldn’t be more distinguished in World Music circles — Jacob Edgar, its founder, was head of A&R at Putamayo — few of you have heard of him or his sparkling label, Cumbancha.
The music industry in America is facing the greatest crisis in its history — it can’t find much to sell that you care about. Well, here are some poor musicians no one ever heard of, who made the recording of their lives without any thought of fame or fortune. And here’s a guy in a Vermont farmhouse, lavishing beautiful packaging and energetic promotion on these nonentities.