Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective
f this album showed up in the mail unannounced, as it did at my place, you could intuit a lot from the cover. A palm tree peeps out from behind a beachfront lean-to, against an azure sky. There’s the “Garifuna Collective” epithet, which conjures the all-to-ready antecedent of the Buena Vista Social Club, or if you’re really buffed up on your world music, the worthy, fascinating, but rather polite Paranda collection from a few years ago.
So you’d bet on this album being good, deserving. You’d hope for some appreciable degree of upliftment, an inarguable sentiment, hopefully in another language, which helps. But you’d get funny looks if you’d predicted, ahead of time, that this would be one of the most exciting things you’d heard all year.
It doesn’t improve matters when you’re late to the unparty.
I would hazard that the lyrics are part of the effect, evoking English while refuting it, but there is slim hope of my saying anything about the lyrics or the album without sounding deadeningly ethnobongo or essentialist. It is a burden to describe this album: the feeling that these songs have been independently written across the world, again and again. I will try.
Let us start by noting that the music meets no cultural boundaries, borrowing freely from more musical traditions than the average Putumayo collection. (Trite. Do better.)
Back to the lyrics: You do not notice how the syllables do not in fact line up into familiar families of phonemes because the singing seizes the preemptive cortex by the throat. (Better, but you really shouldn’t mix your metaphors.)
Is it a cheap trick, really, to go and assemble the greatest musicians of a given genre and throw them together on an album? Guitarist Andy Martinez is an unsung genius, lyrical yet succinct, and the rest of the band are adept and instinctual. The liner notes specify that the Garifuna are an endangered culture, encouraging us to buy records as remedy, which seems as good a suggestion as any. Perhaps necessity is the mother of alchemy.
Given the strength and immediacy of Palacio’s melodies, it is diverting to imagine the songs covered by bands of various faux-revivalist stripes: The White Stripes would enjoy taking a buzzsaw guitar effect to the ever-so-slightly spaghetti Western tenth track, which involves several diacriticals and is translated as “My People Have Moved On” (a Jack lyric if ever there was one).
Is the magic ingredient youth, the first stirrings of a new movement? Only until Paul Nabor, as elegantly grizzled as Ibrahim Ferrer in his prime, sings “Ayó Dar,” translated as “Goodbye My Dear,” and wrecks your home with the news that a crocodile has eaten one of your sons. Which, if you happen to read the liner notes only after hearing the song, makes perfect sense of the blasted, heartbroken melody.
Possibly the record’s charm has something to do with the absence of any drumkits, who can tell. As a result the whole thing sounds as though it was recorded in one very large, comfortably amicable room, leaving the strands of studio-engineered business filigreed into the lapels of the songs all the more mysterious, circuit boards awash in a monsoon flood.
It must be the songwriting, in part at least. Palacio’s songs, and those of his colleagues, treat their magnificent, lugubrious-cum-jubilant themes with care and deference, singing with graceful conviction, often in twinned octaves, and not crowding the master’s personal space with counterpoint or superfluous harmony. On the last track, “Ámuñegü,” (for a diacritical workout, try typing that three times fast) the harmonies are added only with alarming reluctance, and so it seems apt that the song ends in a growing chorus of keening voices that outlast the accompaniment.
Watína’s allure is in all and none of the above; it is the synchronicity of crisis and celebration mysteriously committed to tape. I have previously bemoaned the fact that traditionally only Birkenstocked fetishists invite themselves to the World Music party. No record better deserves to buck that particular trend than this superlative album.