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Music Review: Various Musicians Ibimeni -Traditional Garifuna Music

Music ethnologists have travelled around the world since the days wax cylinders were the height of recording technology collecting examples of music from various cultures. In some instances these recordings have become not only research projects, but records of traditions that were in the process of heading for extinction. Buried in the archives of universities and museums are sound files of everything from Native American healing songs to chants and ritual music from Southern Africa. European encroachment into original people's lives and lands and colonial government policies of cultural genocide and enforced assimilation ensured that those ancient songs would not be passed along to a new generation so these recordings are all that remains of thousands of years of tradition.

Ironically as technology improved to allow better quality recordings, fewer and fewer original cultures existed to be recorded. However, since we have turned into such a disposable society the techniques used by original researchers to record indigenous music have been used in recent years to ensure music that grew out of early North American European and slave cultures are being preserved. While in the United States that's included songs that are as contemporary as the 1930's, in other parts of our hemisphere some of these newer traditions date back to the 17th century and represent a mingling of imported and native cultures.

Sometime in the 1600's two ships carrying African slaves from Nigeria were shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean that were occupied by two tribe of indigenous peoples, the Arawars and the Kalipuna called the Caribs by Spanish explorers. Initially there was conflict between the escaped slaves and the natives but eventually they settled their differences, intermarried and created a third people who are now called Garifuna. As colonial masters changed The Garifuna were rounded up by the British to be moved to an island off the coast of Honduras, Roatan. When it in turn was taken from the British by the Spanish the people were moved again, this time to Trujillo to serve as labourers and farmers.
Garafuna Band.jpg
In 1802 the Spanish shipped some or the people living in Tujillo to Belize to work as woodcutters where they established communities and gradually more of their people joined them. When Central America achieved independence from Spain, the Garifuna remaining in Tujillo discovered they were now living in Honduras and loyalty to Spain wasn't something their countrymen approved of. This resulted in the mass migration of the people to the communities already established on the coast of Belize.

In spite of their rather harried early existence the Garifuna managed to develop a culture unique to them which emphasizes music, dance, and storytelling and a religion that combines Catholicism with African and native beliefs. While many cultures have evolved traditions of dance, music and storytelling, the Garifuna have combined the three elements and refined them significantly so that the music, song, and dance work together to tell various stories. In 1990 Alfonso Arrivillaga Cortes and Byron Sosa visited Garifuna living in Livingston Guatemala to make field recordings, and the results can be heard on a new release from the Sub Rosa label called Ibimeni. The music that you will hear on this CD was not performed in order to recreate something that has vanished into the mists of history and barely remembered by a few people, its the sound of a living culture that has somehow survived many hardships and been able to resist assimilation into "civilization".

The rather extensive liner notes that come with Ibimeni breaks down the different types of rhythms that are used in Garifuna music and what each one signifies and how the music is performed. A group of up to four drums, referred to as garaon, made up of primera, high pitched, and segunda, low pitched instruments, are accompanied by both a solo singer and a choir. While the solo singer "tells" the story in song, the choir provides emphasis by repeating verses. Meanwhile dancers are responding to the sounds created by the primera to enact the story. However unlike most dances where the dancer is an extension of the drums beat, here they are reacting to what the drum "says" as if they were having a conversation.

There are three types of rhythm basic to the music of the Garifuna people: Punta, the most common, is used for secular events and some festive occasions; Hunguhugu, is used specifically for rituals associated with the cult of the ancestors known as Chugu and is accompanied by chants known as Abeimahani; and finally Wanaragua is specifically for a dance that recreates the people's battles with the English and is only performed on holidays like Christmas, New Year's Eve and Day, and the Epiphany. Unlike the other dances this is the only one that has specific steps and costumes for the dancers including rattles made of shell hung from the dancer's knees.
Garifuna Dance.jpg
Drums and percussion instruments predominate in the music, and one of the things that struck me most about what I was hearing was the similarities between it and the type of drumming I've come to associate with Native North Americans. In fact there was one religious song, track 12 "Wasanriaha" (union), where the combination of voices and drums was eerily reminiscent of the sound of a Pow-wow drum. A steady, heartbeat, rhythm accompanied by voices singing near falsetto chants. Although this is fairly common among the various nations of mid-western North America, and has now been adapted by most nations for their Pow-wow gatherings, this marked the first time I've heard that distinct combination used by people outside of North America.

Occasionally during a song you will hear the sound of what's called a marine small trumpet. There is something quite spine tingling and mournful sounding about it, reminding me of a mixture of a conch shell and the sound of a very distant fog horn in the earliest part of the morning. I did notice that its only used in certain Puntas, and it seemed to depend on their theme. Although the disc did open with a song that featured only that instrument called "Marine Small Trumpet". The liner notes say the song is known as a "call", and while I don't know what it was originally meant to call, it sounded to me like it was trying to call the day out of the ocean after a particularly foggy night. However, that's probably more my imagination than reality, because if you look at the majority of the song titles you realize that their music is primarily concerned with the day to day things of life; "The Water Has Boiled", "It's Getting Dark", and "Edna's Gold Tooth".

Like the rhythms, there are also names for the different types of songs and the different types of instrumental music that is performed. Los arruloos (lullabies) and Los alabados (Catholic liturgical) are the two major song types heard on the album, and the three different instrumentals are known as La Parranda, Las bandas, and El Pororo and refer to which instruments are being performed. The exception is El Pororo, as it also refers to a specific type of music played for festivals associated with The Virgin of Guadalupe. So "Edna's Gold Tooth", a Pororo, is played by a band with high and low drums, the marine small trumpet, turtle shells (percussion instrument), cymbals, and other drums and follows a beat that is similar to what you'd hear during Mardi Gras celebrations.

For all that describing the music makes it sound incredibly structured, listening to it you'd never know. While there are definite distinct patterns that the music follows, there is also a wonderful amount of energy and passion that flows through the song as expressed by the singers which gives them their individuality, so even songs from the same grouping don't necessarily sound alike. I only wish there was some way that the dancers could have been incorporated and the recording presented as a DVD so we could experience the material to its fullest.

Since these songs were recorded back in 1990, the music of the Garifuna people has undergone popularization and is now being performed in concert hall settings. Ibimeni returns the music to the villages and beaches of the Caribbean where it originated and gives you an opportunity to hear it the way it has been sung and played for the last two hundred years. Like all good field recordings this one has created a record of a sound and preserved it for future generations. Culture has to evolve in order to survive, but its origins should never be forgotten. Recordings like this one ensure that no matter what happens history won't be washed away by the tide of change.

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