Sofia Blanco comes into Umalali with a salty alertness, strong as iron, pointed as nails, a fierce and mournful sound.
Sofia Blanco is back! And so is a little bit of the squashy soft-rock electric guitar that squirmed its way into Andy Palacio's Watina last year, but eh, we'll cope. Palacio himself died in January after suffering two seizures and a stroke. His death was unexpected. The recent success of Watina had given him international momentum. His professional take on Garifuna roots had attracted the kind of praise and attention that this music had never had before. Watina won him a posthumous award from the BBC. Obituaries appeared in foreign newspapers. So he was gone but he had left a legacy, he had cleared a path for other Garifuna musicians who might want to follow him to a larger audience. Here was their music on the world stage: a combination of rapid drumming, galloping, staggered rhythms, singing that was part-celebration, part-woe, something crisp and unusual, not quite Caribbean, not quite African, rattling with percussion, likable, lively, and new.
On Umalali that music has a different tone. The women's voices are prickly and rough where the men's were quieter and smoother. The songs bristle. Palacio entered Watina with a few words that were almost a sung purr. He sounded gentle and coaxing. Blanco comes into Umalali with a salty alertness, strong as iron, pointed as nails, a fierce and mournful sound. The shuffling percussion of the introduction cues you to expect a sweet crooner in the style of Cesaria Evora and instead there's this. Blanco's voice pounces on you. A moment goes by before you register the feeling in her voice, the maturity behind the nails, the dignity of the iron. It's emotional but never pulpy, never self-pitying, even when she's singing about physical suffering. Her daughter Silvia, who takes the lead in "Barubana Yagien" and "Fuleisei", has the same pounce as her mother but her voice is younger, cuter, lighthearted. The nip of citron in her inflections is the vocal equivalent of a slightly askew nose or buckled lip that turns an ordinary face into a remarkable one.
Chella Torres on "Anaha Ya", "Marua", and "Afayahadina" is deep and steady. Masagu Fernandez Guity on "Luwuburi Sigala" has the crusty tang of age. Julia Nunez sings "Lirun Biganute" with an evocative vibration that almost swerves out of tune, sounding like bad news crackling out of a very old wireless set. The simple instrumentation behind her has been nicely shaped to show off her voice to its best advantage, downplaying the unevenness of the non-professional singer and giving space to the voice's good points, the sincerity of it, the way it slides and quivers.
Some of the songs on Umalali are solo pieces, others are the call-and-response between a lead and a chorus. The lead singer sings a few words, then the chorus comes crashing in. There's a lot of excitement in this music, not only in the voices but also in the pace of it, the quickness of the drumming, the way that a song like "Afayahadina" seems to spin in circles as the instruments and voices chase one another. So much happens so rapidly that 40 minutes go by in a flash. At times the music sounds like a samba, but a tough backwoods samba, sung by people who, if they lived in other countries, might be singing fado, rebetika, flamenco, or blues. It has that same flavour of a tough life being transformed into music, people giving their hardships a purpose and a shape by turning them into songs, setting them forth as examples: see, this has happened to me, listen.
Umalali is Watina's successor, and, at the very least, its equal. If the other Garifuna roots albums that come after it are as good as this, then it's going to be a genre to watch out for.