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At first their sound is reminiscent of Bob Marley. Just as plaintive but with added punch. But listen longer -- the more familiar the music feels, the harder it is to pin down.
This is the music of the Garifuna Collective, a Central American band, whose native Garifuna language and culture has been named a Masterpiece Heritage by UNESCO. This weekend they’re in town, performing on Saturday and Sunday at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.
Desiree Diego, one of the singers in the band, calls their sound “one with Mother Africa.” It’s heavy on percussion, with tenor and bass drums as its centerpiece. Add in turtle-shells and maracas and call/response vocals. Then comes the counterpoint: electric guitars, unexpectedly underplayed, unexpectedly sweet.
As Ivan Duran, who produces the group’s recordings on his Stonetree record label puts it, “we’re looking to get all the juice from a melody.”
Still, the Collective steers clear of the temptation to make a more commercial sound. The group sees promoting authentic Garifuna culture as its raison d’etre. Many of the group’s songs have been passed down through the generations. Before the success of the Collective, many were virtually unknown outside of the Garifuna communities in Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.
Who are the Garifuna? “Our roots are in South Africa,” Desiree Diego says, “those days before the slave ships came.” When some of those boats crashed into the Caribbean coast, the survivors swam to shore. As they mixed with the Arawak Amerindians, the Garifuna people were born. When Britain governed the area, they tried to further marginalize the community, pushing them to coastal areas and islands. Paradoxically, that isolation served to keep the Garifuna culture intact.
“This is culture where music is everywhere. Music is like food in the Garifuna communities,” Duran says.
“It’s a culture that is about resilience above all else,” he continues. “You can hear it in the songs. They may be telling really sad stories -- the death of a child, or the loss of a home in a hurricane -- but the music is so full of strength that you can’t help feeling glad that you heard the story.”
When the group came together 20 years ago, nobody expected that they would tour all over Europe and the United States and be lauded internationally. To date, the Collective has released 30 albums and counting. Among that number is one featuring the Collective’s women.
“I am surprised each time I hear myself on the radio,” says Diego. “When I hear that I feel on top on the world. Young people come up to me and say ‘we want to be just like you.’ I tell them ‘well, then you have to learn our language and our music.’ Not long ago, young people were not interested like this. Now we even have a school where our language is taught. My child goes to that school.”
Diego and two other Garifuna women will be featured at this weekend’s performance.
She remembers the first time she sang publicly. “I was 13. It was in our temple. My god-mother asked me.” Diego is referring to the high-priestess of a Garifuna religion that uses song to heal the community. “Yes, our work with the Collective has gone much further than I thought it would. But I think my godmother knew.”
The Garifuna Collective, presented by FUNDarte, Jan. 27, at 8:30 p.m. and Jan. 28, at 3:00 p.m.; Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; tickets $30 www.ticketmaster.com; 800-745-3000 and
at the Miami Dade County Auditorium Box Office, 305-547-5414; 786- 348-0789.
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