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Along the coastline of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, live the Garifuna, a community comprising the descendants of Carib and Arawak Indians indigenous to that area and of Africans, escaping enslavement in the West Indies. Speaking an Arawak-based language with a significant import of Spanish, Creole and a bit of English, the Garifuna are not an isolated people – you hear this in the Afro-Caribbean lilt of the music on Umalali. But what is interesting is how female-centred their music is: women compose the songs that sing the days through. It is this aspect that’s so well expressed in the first album released by the Garifuna Women’s Project in its own right. Umalali (‘Voice’) is well named.

In instrumental terms, the album is pleasingly direct: guitars, drums – central to Garifuna music – and percussive instruments, a smattering of brass. It is the vocalists who are the stars here, however: Sarita, singing about Hurricane Hattie of 1961; Sofia Blanco, with a song about childbirth; the mesmerizing Bernadine murmuring her way through ‘Uruwei’ (‘The Government’); and Julia Nunez’s rendition of (her mother) Marcela Lewis’s devastating ‘Lirun Biganute’ (‘Sad News’). Many women are singing songs composed by mothers, grandmothers, aunts. They are, as Belizean producer Ivan Duran says, ‘true caretakers of Garifuna songs’. Duran, whose tenacity saw this project to fruition, has also provided excellent sleeve notes and the CD includes some video footage, further illuminating a graceful album.

New Internationalist issue 415 magazine cover This article is from the September 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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