Shortly after becoming U.S president, George W. Bush met his Brazilian counterpart and professed an ignorance of Brazil's long history of African slavery and integration. The incident underscored the still-widespread misunderstanding of slavery's deep reach across centuries. Just as in the United States, the influx of Africans throughout the Americas has had a profound cultural impact, including in Belize, the Central American country where the Garifuna people -- descendants of Africans and native Central Americans -- maintain important traditions that have evolved with time.
Garifuna music is a perfect example. Music fans around the world know about the Garifuna's enthralling sound because of a series of acclaimed albums that feature the Garifuna Collective, a group of musicians hailing from Belize and neighboring countries, where their families have lived for centuries. The Garifuna Collective is touring the United States -- including a stop in San Francisco on Wednesday, August 7 -- and is showcasing songs from its new album Ayó, which was released last month and means "goodbye" in the Garifuna language.
The group's 2007 album, Wátina, is the one that established Garifuna music on the cultural map; Amazon.com's music editors named it the greatest world music album in history, surpassing releases put out by Bob Marley, Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Mali's Ali Farka Toure. Like Wátina, Ayó is a stirring, soulful mix of strings, percussion, and voice, but it takes the collective's sound much farther, adding twinges of reggae, modern African elements, and other touches that give it a more global feel.
"All the albums are an evolution from tradition, though perhaps the new album went a little bit further," producer Ivan Duran tells me. "The work that we've done over the years has always tried to focus on how we can project Garifuna music into the future and not just try to preserve it in its traditional form."
Duran, who grew up and lives in Belize, was instrumental in making Wátina and took on a more important role for Ayó when the first album's primary organizer, Andy Palacio, died suddenly in 2008. Palacio's death left a giant void in Garifuna music that Duran and the Garifuna Collective have filled by bringing new members into the group. On its current tour, the collective is performing with Canadian singer-songwriter Danny Michel, who recorded an album with the collective called Blackbirds Are Dancing Over Me.
Performing with Michel "is helping us reach a whole new audience for the music," Duran says. "That's the way we're heading. We want to open up to the world more, to kind of export our sound, if you like. The same way that we're asking the world to open up to our music, we also want to open up to the rest of the world. And we invite people to record, just like Danny Michel did. We'll be doing more of that in the future."
The standard for collaborative world-music albums was set in 1994 by U.S. guitarist Ry Cooder and Mali's Toure. Talking Timbuktu was both a critical and commercial success, and also created global interest in Mali's music. The Collective is having a similar impact on Garifuna music. The Garifuna people number more than 500,000, and trace their lineage to 1635, when two Spanish ships filled with African slaves sank near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Surviving slaves married with native Central Americans. Garifuna music has incorporated elements of Spanish guitar and African drumming, and so the collective's songs have always sounded "familiar but different."
"It's something very unique," Duran says. "It's not African. It's not Latin. It's not Amer-Indian. It's a mix of everything."
"Against all odds," Duran adds, "this music exists today. The Garifuna's (forefathers) were basically dumped in Central America, left there just to die on an island. And a couple hundred years later, to find out that there are over a half-million Garifunas living in the world, with this totally vibrant cultural expression, with this unique living language -- it's nothing short of amazing."
The Garifuna Collective performs with Danny Michel at 9pm, Wednesday, August 7, 2013, at Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit brickandmortarmusic.com.