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V/A - Ibimeni: Garifuna Traditional Music from Guatemala

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Artist: V/A

Album: Ibimeni: Garifuna Traditional Music from Guatemala

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Nov. 18, 2008

It’s no secret that regions of Central and South America have intact, ethnic minority groups, people whose ancestors have no connection to Spain and who often find themselves tucked away in sections of the landscapes where travel is rugged or where a body of water drapes a barrier. Because such places as Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Belize share Caribbean coastline, it’s only natural that those populations reflect influence from the African diaspora found in that sea’s island chain. Musically, Costa Rica’s main port, Limon, is known for its own take on Calypso. Panama is a patch quilt of Cumbias, funk and the local, African-influenced tindin. Yet, the 500,000 or so Garifuna minorities stretched from Belize all the way into Nicaragua’s Laguna de Perlas have managed to keep their culture, which arose out of native Caribs mixing with slaves who escaped due to shipwreck or mutiny. They even managed to sustain a mass exodus at the end of the 18th century, when the British drove them out of the Lower Antilles and up into Honduras, where they soon spread out.

The recordings here focus on a traditional music and dance troupe known as Ibimeni, which means "sweetness" in Garifuna, the people who live in Livingston, Guatemala in that country’s small chunk of Caribbean coastline. Recorded in 1990 by ethnomusicologist Alfonso Arrivillaga Cortes, the selections on this disc don’t so much show further proof of West African influence on "Latin" music as they paint an audio portrait of a little known folk music, unbroken, full of fire and incredibly diverse. Perhaps so much of the intensity here is due to the centrality of music to Garifuna culture. Whatever the case, this is without question some of the most infectious music of any kind to be released this year.

By and large, this is vocal and drum music, though horns, guitar and the "marine snail trumpet" also make appearances. The vocals are often choral, with plenty of call and response, not unlike the troupes that populate Southeast Ghana, Togo and Benin, where so much of this music originated. Their voices are slightly nasal and take on a modal spookiness (especially when the guitar appears) that can’t help but place them in Latin America. But there is plenty of room for drones, too. The opening track is a solo, snail trumpet call. "Wala Diru Lamala," or "The Cricket has Sung," is a multi-voiced a capella performance that contains the same monolithic intensity of an old lining hymn from an east Kentucky church. Perhaps the disc’s most gorgeous moment comes in the form of a lullaby. Voices hum in unison, mapping out the melody and tempo before turning to lyrics. It’s as much a call to peace as it is a sedative for the troubled mind.

By Bruce Miller

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