Remembering a world-music giant

Boston Globe, April 4, 2008

Last October, Andy Palacio, a brilliant musician and activist from Belize, capped a landmark year by standing on a stage in Seville, Spain, to accept world music’s highest tribute: the WOMEX Award.

Earlier in the year Palacio had released “Watina,” a soul-drenched album of modern roots music from his Garifuna ethnic community. Accepting the WOMEX Award, he dedicated it to the ancestors of the Garifuna, the 18th-century mutineers who rebelled against slavery on the island of St. Vincent and were deported to Central America’s isolated Caribbean coast. Today their descendants are a culturally imperiled minority in Belize and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.

Palacio’s prize, which he shared with producer and creative partner Ivan Duran, marked an apotheosis for the two men’s 15-year efforts to preserve and renew Garifuna music: the field-recording forays to remote locations, the studio sessions in seaside shacks, the collaborations with aging musicians and village women whose artistry might otherwise have faded to oblivion.

Yet less than three months after the WOMEX accolade, Palacio was dead. Felled by a stroke, he spent several days in a coma before dying on Jan. 19. In Belize, where he was a pop superstar even before he became invested in roots and culture, his death was a national tragedy; he received a state funeral.

Andy Palacio was only 47.

Now, producer Duran and Palacio’s colleagues – the Garifuna Collective, who backed him on “Watina”; young protege Aurelio Martinez; and members of the women’s group Umalali, whose new CD was one of Palacio’s proudest projects – have embarked on a tour to honor his memory and advance their shared cultural mission. They visit Johnny D’s tomorrow for what promises to be one of the most significant dates on the year’s world-music calendar.

A recent phone conversation with Duran and Desere Diego, one of the Umalali singers, finds them in Belize, mid-rehearsal for the local release concert for the women’s album. Palacio’s abrupt passing has left them raw. “I am crying right now,” Diego says when asked to evoke his memory.

“To say it’s a great loss is a big understatement,” Duran says. “After all these years having reached the success of `Watina,’ things were looking so bright, he was starting to get recognition, and now this – it’s very sad.”

Belize is a sliver of a country with fewer than a half-million inhabitants, that became independent only in 1981 (it was the former British Honduras). Palacio, first as the star of the local “punta rock” dance music and then as a champion of Garifuna roots, had come to play an outsized role in the development of national identity.

“Belize will never be the same without Andy,” Duran says. “You used to see him everywhere – not just on television or the radio, but on the streets, with people. You cannot imagine the country without the man.”

Just as important, Palacio’s work helped affirm the place of the Garifuna within the new nation. “Here in Belize the Garifuna are a small minority,” Duran says. “And here he was the biggest star in the country.”

In the Garifuna language, in the subtle, sinewy rhythms, in the women’s vocal harmonies and call-and-response patterns, one can hear as direct and distinct an African presence as exists in Caribbean music today. The community’s forced isolation helped to preserve this lineage, but also limited its dissemination. Today, with Belize a popular destination for scuba diving and eco-tourism, and widespread Garifuna emigration to places like Los Angeles and the Bronx, globalization presents new challenges.

It’s taken a combination of Duran and Palacio’s local initiative with outside support from the likes of Vermont-based record label Cumbancha to deliver Garifuna stories to a broad market and, in the process, create revenue streams for traditional artists. The success they’ve achieved thus far, Duran says, has at its heart Palacio’s realization that the stories they tell and the issues they face go beyond the Garifuna experience alone.

“What was really important about the Garifuna story was more universal issues of culture,” Duran says. “Issues that resonated with people around the world. That, to me, was the big turning point for him.”

It didn’t hurt either that Palacio’s gentle, precise singing voice had the border-erasing, old-soul appeal one associates with the likes of Bob Marley – fully textured, replete with mature melancholy, and yet somehow ageless.

Following in his footsteps is a prodigious task, but Duran says his colleagues are up to it and are working harder than ever. “We’ve been even more focused these last few months,” he says. “Andy always said, `There’s a lot more where I come from.’ Talent is not the issue. It’s filling that huge loss of a colleague and friend.”

The record “Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project” bears out those claims. It’s the fruit of a 10-year project to record Garifuna women (including Sophia Blanco, who will perform at Johnny D’s tomorrow), whose music is typically heard only in the private sphere.

Singer Diego explains: “Most of the songs in Garifuna culture are composed by women. Sometimes women will gather, just having fun, and write songs then and there. When deaths happen, or just in daily life, the women put their hurt through the music.”

“I must say I am surprised and pleased,” she says of the new arrangements of traditional songs on the album, the first commercial release of Belizean music by women, and at the overwhelmingly favorable response she says the group has received.

It’s ultimately through the continuation of projects like this one that the newly re-emergent Garifuna roots-music community will best pay tribute to a standard-bearer who passed away far too soon.

“Andy was the best ambassador we ever had,” Duran says. “He in a very elegant way took the story of these people to the world. Now it’s up to us to continue his work.”