After a shipwreck crossing the dreaded Middle Passage from West Africa, the human cargo wound up on an island intermingling with local residents, a mixture of Arawak and Carib groups. The resulting hybrid group known as the Garifuna fought British colonizers and were eventually deported en masse, deposited on the Caribbean coast of Central America and left for dead, as young Garifuna musician Aurelio recounts in his song “Yurumei” on his new album Laru Beya.
In Aurelio’s world, ocean currents flow from Africa past and present, from that long-ago shipwreck and lost island sanctuary, from a world now embracing the threatened sounds of his deeply creative people. Laru Beya is the second release on the label Next Ambiance, an imprint of Sub Pop. The Seattle-based Sub Pop label was the original home to such legendary bands as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney, and has enjoyed more recent successes with such artists as The Postal Service, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Band of Horses, Flight of the Conchords, and Fleet Foxes.
With the sea as his constant companion, Aurelio makes music that spans tragic history and soulful ceremonies, music sparked by his childhood in an insolated coastal hamlet and channeled to honor his late friend and mentor, Garifuna musical icon, Andy Palacio. Aurelio is the tradition bearer for a unique culture with African, Caribbean Indian, and Latin influences, but also a thoroughly modern artist determined to break new ground for his centuries-old roots.
Aurelio came to love these roots, growing up in a tiny Honduran village far off the beaten track. He learned sacred drumming from family and performed at adults-only ceremonies at age six. Encouraged by a mother with a gorgeous voice and his widely admired troubadour father, the young Aurelio made tin-can guitars. Music was the only entertainment in a place with no electricity and little contact with the outside world.
Aurelio’s father was an expert in paranda, a street-friendly, Latin-inflected style that chronicles everything from social ills to humorous tales to aching love, all in a highly improvisatory and soulful mode. Aurelio has retained this musical flexibility, and in the sessions that became Laru Beya he revealed his tireless, playful love of making music on the fly—sometimes for hours at a time, lying in a hammock with his guitar, late into the night. Senegalese Afropop legend Youssou N’Dour selected Aurelio as his protégé in 2009 and encouraged Aurelio to channel his virtuosity, to balance his evanescent stage presence with reserve until just the right moment. N’Dour also contributed his unique vocal abilities to several songs on Laru Beya, including “Wamada.” Aurelio visited Dakar visiting clubs, where groups like Orchestra Baobab invited Martinez up on stage and later joined him in the studio, learning a verse of Garifuna lyrics phonetically, a first for non-Garifuna musicians. Baobab join Aurelio on two tracks.
While Aurelio has the gift of spontaneous creation, his compositions are solidly rooted in the traditions he grew up with. At the heart of every song on Laru Beya beats a traditional Garifuna rhythm, and not just the most widely known popularized rhythms of punta (“Ereba”) or paranda (“Ineweyu”) familiar to fans of Central American music. Aurelio uses rarely recorded rhythms such as the sacred ugulendu or the African-inflected abeimahani rhythm, connected with women’s singing. To deepen the sad tale of migration to the U.S., Aurelio concluded the song “Tio Sam” with part of a traditional female song set to the abeimahani beat, sung by a chorus of Garifuna women.
Many of the songs on Laru Beya draw on traditional refrains, little pieces of old melodies that intrigued Aurelio and his long-time friend, producer, and musical collaborator Ivan Duran, who was intimately involved in the album’s distinctive arrangements.
They also drew on family heirlooms, including songs Aurelio’s mother had written, such as the moving “Nuwaruguma,” about a mother’s star watching over her son. When recording his version, Aurelio couldn’t recall all the lyrics and called his mother, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. After giving him the missing words, she chided him for not inviting her to sing with him, an omission he corrected once she visited Honduras.
Beyond the beauties of Garifuna tradition and Aurelio’s striking interpretations lay the true guiding force behind the album: the loss of one of the Garifunas’ most eloquent and musically talented spokespeople, Andy Palacio.
Palacio, who passed away suddenly in 2008, can be credited with transforming the music of the Garifuna from local curiosity to global icon. He won regional popularity as the powerhouse behind punta rock, a Garifuna-rock synthesis that broke onto the Central American scene in the 1990s. Then in 2007 came his groundbreaking, chart-climbing, international award-winning album, Wátina (Cumbancha Records), a recording that truly put Garifuna music on the map and garnered Palacio global acclaim.
“The last time I was with Andy in Belize, he took me many places, like he had never done before. Every Garifuna community where we went, he would ask me to speak to the youth and sing Garifuna songs to them,” Aurelio remembers. “He also promised he would take me to his village of Barranco but we never got there. I was surprised by the humble way in which he lived. But at the same time he was very sophisticated.”
A mere month after Andy’s death, Aurelio, Duran, and the talented Garifuna musicians who joined them on Laru Beya headed for a small fishing village, where they set up a studio in a beachfront house. They were often joined by local singers and dancers, like the chorus of village women who stopped by to add their voices to the title track, “Laru Beya.” Recording and living by the sea for several weeks, they were still in grief and shock, yet they knew they had to do something amazing to honor Palacio’s life and work.
Yet Palacio’s impact was arguably even greater in his native land of Belize and in the surrounding Garifuna communities of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, where his life inspired a new generation of Garifuna artists. “When we talked,” Aurelio explains, “we often discussed the rescue and preservation of the Garifuna culture and how to inspire the new generation to be proud of their culture.”
Musicians like Aurelio have been able to forge an innovative approach to Garifuna sounds thanks to Palacio’s willingness to try new arrangements while keeping true to Garifuna tradition, adding new instrumentation to the drums and vocals characteristic of most Garifuna music.
“When Aurelio and I were talking about how to approach the arrangements for the album, we became convinced that it had to be forward looking and tear down all the barriers,” Duran reflects. “Andy allowed Garifuna artists to break free and be as creative as they wanted, free to go in any direction they wished. They don’t have to be totally true to their roots, because Andy’s work was very far from traditional music, but still clearly Garifuna.”