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Aurelio - Darandi

Aurelio Martinez is unquestionably the world’s greatest living interpreter of Garifuna music.

Specifically, he is a master of the paranda -- the distinctive, guitar-based Garifuna style often compared to American blues for its bittersweet melodies and sharp social commentaries concealed within songs about everyday life. While less well-known than Cuban son or Colombian cumbia, it is without doubt one of the continent’s great music traditions — a sound that is at once deeply African and Latin American. Throughout his 30 year career, Aurelio’s goal has been to show both the world and his own community the richness of the Garifuna paranda tradition.

The Garifuna people have a story unlike any other in the Americas. Their unique culture descends from a mixture of 17th century African slave ship survivors and the indigenous Arawak people who once populated many islands of the Caribbean. When slave vessels were shipwrecked off cost of St Vincent, the African escapees who swam ashore intermarried into the local Arawak population, living in peace and over time becoming the Garifuna. When Great Britain eventually decided to settle the island, they were met with fierce indigenous resistance and a war ensued; when British forces prevailed, they deported the surviving Garifuna to the mainland of what we know today as Honduras.

Today the Garifuna live in about 50 towns on Central America’s Caribbean coast, stretching from Belize down through Guatemala and Honduras all the way to Nicaragua.

“Our culture is such a beautiful culture, and we’re losing it,” Aurelio says heatedly, in Caribbean-inflected Spanish. The fight to preserve Garifuna culture is a topic he can hold forth on for hours; it’s the purpose that drives his music (and the reason he decided to get into Honduran politics, becoming the first representative of African descent in the national Honduran Congress). “The next generation isn’t learning the Garifuna language. In the schoolbooks there’s not one word about the role of the Garifuna. How are our children supposed to learn their history?”

By sharing Garifuna music with the wider world, Aurelio draws attention to the challenges his people are facing. The Garifuna in Honduras are undergoing fierce struggles over land ownership. Their seaside villages are located on postcard-perfect beaches, and as Honduras seeks to grow its tourism industry, such lands are coming under pressure from powerful business and government interests. Garifuna leaders have been harassed and even assassinated for speaking up.

Secondly, and perhaps more important for Aurelio, is the mission of reaching Garifuna youth. “I want young Garifuna people to hear the problems they are living with reflected in my songs, and dance with those same problems.” In his songs, he has addressed issues ranging from safe sex to the tribulations of migration to the U.S. He hopes that the children who aren’t learning to speak the Garifuna language will be inspired by his music to sing it.

While hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall culture may capture the attention of young Garifuna, it’s clear that Aurelio commands a respect from his community that transcends fashion. He was honored at a Garifuna Survival Day concert in New York, celebrating the resilience of his people. The vast majority of Garifuna outside Central America live in the Bronx — an estimated 100,000 in all. Second-generation Garifuna kids can get caught between worlds due to the identity politics of America, which pressures them to choose between their blackness and their latinidad; in the end, their Garifuna-ness is what often gets lost in the shuffle. But at this giant NYC party, with Aurelio leaping across the stage and singing late into the night, they didn’t have to choose to be anything. They were Garifuna, then and always.

It is the spirit of such live performances that Aurelio channels in Darandi, his fourth solo album. Unlike previous releases, which were painstakingly recorded one overdub at a time at the Stonetree Studios in Belize, this album captures the unfiltered sound of Aurelio's incendiary live concerts, accompanied by some of the Garifuna world’s brightest musical talents. It was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios while Aurelio was in England to perform at WOMAD. He packed the whole band and their gear into a single room. “We got into a zone where we felt like we were in our own community, playing Garifuna music for our people. It was a special feeling,” he says.

As Aurelio sees it, this is an album that completes a cycle in his career, representing the culmination of 30 years of composing and performing paranda music. It features the selections from his extensive catalogue which have proven to be his biggest hits, the songs he plays most frequently while touring throughout the world.

“It’s important to conserve our culture because, in the end, there are things we have that the world needs. No matter how small a culture is, it has lessons to teach. The Garifuna don’t pollute. We don’t cut down a healthy tree, we wait for it to become dry before we cut it down. We conserve our nature. Our cultures of the drum, of the song, of mutual respect between neighbors and communal living, the world needs them.”

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