You could almost forgive Stonetree if From Bakabush sounded amateurish and the songs were shaky and ragged. Instead, the label has put together an album that serves as both an introduction to the label and a superbly enjoyable invitation to the region's music as a whole.
Ivan Duran, the founder of the Stonetree label, grew up in Belize and spent years studying music in Cuba before moving home again. He set up a studio there after realising that he was more comfortable producing albums than playing in front of crowds.
Stonetree is an ambitious venture in a country where studios tend to be tiny affairs designed to turn out quick albums for a local audience. It extends its reach outside Belize, trying to take paranda and brukdown to a larger audience. In the Belize section of the Rough Guide to World Music, all of the albums in their recommended discography are Stonetree releases, with the exception of three foreign compilations, one of which (Paranda: Africa in Central America: from Erato/Detour) had Duran helping at its conception. Search Amazon for brukdown grandpa Mr. Peters or popular star Andy Palacio and you'll find a Stonetree release staring back at you.
The music, which combines influences from Garifuna Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, is not an easy sell. Belize has a small population, and its homegrown styles have never had the impact of the tango, the samba, the mambo, or the son. There has been no breakthrough album, no Benque Viejo del Carmen Social Club selling overseas in the millions. There are no labels with the resources to assiduously groom and promote an artist in the hope that they will become a valuable property. On the contrary, Duran talks about loading his recording equipment into a car and driving out to the country towns to hunt down some of the people he needs. You could almost forgive him if From Bakabush sounded amateurish and the songs were shaky and ragged.
Instead, the label has put together an album that serves as both an introduction to Stonetree and a superbly enjoyable invitation to the region's music as a whole. It's one of the best compilations I've heard this year. (The other, just off the top of my head, would be the Rough Guide to Tanzania.) It is affectionate towards the older musicians -- such as the guitarist Jursino Cayetano, who sings in a slow growl, and Mr. Peters' Boom & Chime, whose "Solomon Gi Ah" is brash and powerful in ways that make me think the group would do well if recorded in Vincent Kenis Congotronics style -- without forgetting the younger ones.
There's galloping new-generation paranda from Aureolio Martinez, who sounds crisp and vital and sings "Ooh-oo-oh" like the wind coming through a hollow tree. Adrian Martinez is as soulful as an Angolan on "Baba". Andy Palacio contributes a track from Keimoun, the neo-punta album he recorded after joining Stonetree in the mid-'90s.
Sofia Blanco was discovered by chance while they were recording women for a future compilation called Umalali. She has one of those terrifically sharp-edged Latin American voices that feels as raw as goat's cheese at first, but after a while it gathers you in and begins to seem natural and lovely. Leroy Young has a very different voice, a smooth one, with a Jamaican accent. He turns "Que Será-Será" into dub poetry mambo. "Que será murdah," he says as a saxophone bops in the background. "Que será dictatah, que será oppression… what will be, will be". Behind him the playful sax mambos on.
The album ends with a hidden track that combines the bobble-head, Andean-sounding trill of the local marimba with radio broadcasts. The voice of a North American news announcer comes to the fore, talking about riots in Belize's neighbour, Guatemala, "a country where most of the population is both Indian," explains the voice, "and poor". This unnamed track, following on from Leroy Young, ends the album on a note of progressive enthusiasm, which perhaps helps to explain the fortitude that has kept Stonetree alive. It must be easier to sustain a venture when you believe that it has a value greater than itself.
With its combination of rawness and polish, From Bakabush is a terrific example of the art of compilation. The tracks follow one another with natural élan. Despite the differences between, say, Sophia Blanco's sharp newcomer's voice and Andy Palacio's stage-honed singing, nothing seems out of place. None of the songs feel wasted. Stonetree's tenth-anniversary album is a lean and meaningful collection of incredibly good music, and there's not much more you can ask for than that.