Finally today, fans of music from Belize in Central America began 2008 on a sad note. The troubadour Andy Palacio died unexpectedly of a stroke at the age of 47. Palacio had revived the music of the ethnic Garifuna people of Belize, descendants of African slaves who arrived there in the 17th century. If there is any silver lining to Palacio's death, it can be found in this music.
In Belize, male Garifuna musicians can become stars. Women Garifuna musicians rarely get that same renown. They are often home-makers first, cooking and washing and cleaning. But that does mean that they observe the world around them closely. And the rhythm of the work there can -- and does -- inspire songs.
â€œI am Dezree Arana, I am from Belize, Central America.â€
Dezree Arana is one of the women in the Garifuna Women's Project. A lot of the music that the women perform is work music. Its antecedent says Arana is the work that slaves did over a century ago.
â€œOur ancestors' job usually was to be cutting log wood. And so when they would do that, they don't have much time to holler or to say "let's do it." And so they do it with songs, and so they would refer to one verse of the song, that's when you move. And so it's a song they use during working time.â€
That's exactly what this song Merua is. It's usually sung a capella while building a canoe, thatching a house, or, chopping wood.
â€œThese songs don't get written on a piece of paper. These are stories.â€
Ivan Duran produced the Garifuna Women's Project CD, which is titled "Umalali."
â€œThese are very simple stories, very simple women who never thought of being on the limelight. They don't compose songs to record or to go on a stage and sing them. They compose songs for their own pleasure and for sharing within their immediate family and community.â€
These song-stories can also document history. This song "Hattie" is about the category 5 Hurricane Hattie which struck Belize on Halloween in 1961. It so wrecked the capital Belize City that the Belizean government moved inland to where it is seated today in Belmopan. Again, Ivan Duran.
â€œAfter Hattie, thousands of Belizeans migrated to the US, there were certain villages that were totally wiped out. And in Garifuna culture, it's important to record those events some times in songs.â€
Hattie is sung by a woman named Sarita Martinez. She's a housewife in the Belizean village of Hopkins. Her aunt composed the song. Ivan Duran had a difficult time getting Sarita to come sing Hattie. She was so busy with chores around the house. But these women are the guardians of this music. In some cases the sole guardians. And by performing it and recording it, they are saving these songs from extinction.
The Garifuna Women's Project is also giving them a rare chance to see the world outside the walls of their houses and compounds in Belize.
Twenty-something singer Desree Arana feels the love every time she performs for audiences in Belize.
â€œThey would come up to me, "girl, I wish I were you, I wish I could just travel the world. But I thank the good lord for my little talent."
Marco Werman: â€œAnd so what kind of people are coming up to you on stage and saying this? Young Garifuna women?â€
Desree Arana: Young Garifuna women, children, even older folks than I am. It makes me feel very big.