When Andy Palacio speaks in English on the video that comes with this album his voice has a mild but unmistakable Caribbean burr, a felted sloping lilt. When he sings in Garifuna then the voice sounds different, the focus comes forward into the bridge of his nose, the tone acquires zest, and there is a slight quaver, like the sound that a sheep makes when it bleats, but here giving his voice a pleasant resonance. It’s an accent with spikes in it that stick out like fish hooks. Palacio and his genial Collective want to make those hooks catch in your brain.
Their effort is not a failure, but I’m not sure that it succeeds as comprehensively as it means to. After years spent turning himself into Belize’s most successful punta rock star (like Wátina, his Til da Mawnin and Keimuon were both produced by Stonetree), Palacio has been persuaded to simplify his music down to an almost completely acoustic style, without the synthesisers and special effects that characterised punta. “Under the direction of my producer Ivan Duran, I made a 180 degree turn… as opposed to where I saw myself heading in the mid-‘90s with samplers, sequencers, and instrumental backing tracks.” The surprise here is that Duran is playing one of the album’s two electric guitars; he might even be the one injecting the music with sloopy ‘80s soft rock twangs.
The other musicians play acoustic instruments: claves, jaranas, maracas, Garifuna drums, non-Garifuna drums, finger cymbals. Cumbancha’s head man Jacob Edgars accompanies one track on a conch shell. The samplers and sequencers of punta have been so comprehensively banished that during one song most of the percussionists are credited with “table top drumming”.
It’s a nice transformation for Palacio. The music sounds Afro-Latin, with a Caribbean languor that differentiates it from the more high-octane Afro-Latin music of other countries. When Palacio and Adrien Martinez introduce a reggae hum during “Lidan Aban” it doesn’t change the mood much at all. Martinez, a former young up-and-comer who seems to have finally upped-and-came, is a familiar name from Stonetree’s back catalogue, and so is Lugua Centano who sings on “Beiba”, a song told from the point of view of a man who comes home hungover from a night on the town and is thrown out of the house by his wife. Sofia Blanco turns up again after appearing on the label’s 10th anniversary album From Bakabush and very welcome she is too, with her sharply warbling bite. Someone called Silvia Blanco sings along with her. A sister?
Paul Nabor, who must be almost 80 by now, takes over the album for a song called “Ayó Da”, telling the story of a friend who disappeared one day during a fishing trip when they were teenagers. “Ida nuba me ei hama besinagu hama familia dan me nachülürün aü,” he sings. The sun is setting for me, dear mother, here at the lagoon. He doesn’t admit it in the song, but Nabor believes that his friend was taken by a crocodile. He appears again on the informal “Yagane”, this time falling out of a canoe. Palacio points out that he might have drowned. Yes, says Nabor, but God preserved me. Ay! says Palacio.
The Garifuna are generally religious people, following their own brand of Christianity modified by the addition of African beliefs. God shows up on a number of the tracks. Other songs tell personal stories: “Sin Precio” is narrated by the character of a woman whose reputation is under attack, and the title track is a complaint from a stranded man who stood in the road unsuccessfully trying to persuade passing cars to give him a lift. The booklet explains that ‘wátina’ means ‘I called out.’
Then there are songs of cultural uplift that urge the Garifuna to come together and forward the fortunes of their people. This kind of song is a familiar sound on African albums, not so familiar on albums from the Americas. The Garifuna have a reason to be concerned. Theirs is a race and a language without a country. Originally settled on the island of St Vincents, they were driven out by the Spanish and found themselves scattered along the mainland coast. Today they live in Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and various expat communities, everywhere in the minority. It is the fear of seeing their culture vanish into time’s oubliette that drives Palacio and powers Wátina. “I realised that what was happening in Nicaragua, the disappearance of Garifuna culture, foreshadowed what was going to happen in Belize less than a generation down the road. I decided to follow my passion and focus more on performing Garifuna music as a way to keep the traditions alive long into the future.”
The traditions being kept alive here are so relaxed that the casual listener is going to miss the urgency in them. This has its good side—who wants to listen to a lecture?— and its bad side—the listener is likely to enjoy Wátina while it lasts and then qualmlessly turn to the next thing without realising that they’ve just been hearing a threatened culture struggling for some airplay. Wátina‘s ideal audience would be composed of the same listeners who buy albums released by Edgar’s last employers, Putumayo, the “music to make you feel good” people. With them in its corner it should have some success. And once musicians see that Garifuna music can succeed both as punta and roots, then—well, after that, what? They might realise that it can get even better than this. With luck they’ll dump the soft rock guitar. Heights will be reached. Wátina is a good album on its own, but as a signpost pointing to the future it’s more than that. It’s an excellent start.