The voice project

Preserving traditions of Central American coastal people through song

The <i>Umalali </i>album, featuring Desere Diego (left), Sophia Blanco and the rest of the Garifuna Women’s Project, documents the stories of Central America’s Garinagu people.

The Umalali album, featuring Desere Diego (left), Sophia Blanco and the rest of the Garifuna Women’s Project, documents the stories of Central America’s Garinagu people.

Photo By sarah weeden

Preview: Chico Performances presents: Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m., in Laxson Auditorium. Tickets: $14-$23, available at University Box Office, 898-6333.
Laxson Auditorium on the Chico State campus

“When we are grating the cassava, we sing,” offered Desere Diego.

“When they are straining the cassava, they sing,” added Joshua Arana.

“Everything we do, we sing,” summed up Diego.

Diego and Arana are singer and lead percussionist, respectively, with the Central American musical group called the Garifuna Women’s Project, which Chico Performances is bringing to Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium on Feb. 16. They spoke by speakerphone from their hotel in Seattle, where they were preparing to kick off their most recent United States tour.

Besides belonging to the same Afro-Caribbean band, Diego and Arana (both from Belize) are also members of an endangered group of coastal-dwelling people known as the Garinagu, plural of “Garifuna”—hence the band’s name—who live in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Garifuna also refers to the language of the Garinagu people.

The Garinagu are descendants of African slaves who swam away from a Spanish ship wrecked off the island of St. Vincent in 1635, said Arana, and “intermingled with the island Caribs and the Arawak Indians” on St. Vincent.

The Garifuna Women’s Project (originally called the Garifuna All-Stars) was conceived by Belizean music producer Ivan Duran in 1997, following in the footsteps of the late Belizean musician Andy Palacio, who was also a champion of the preservation of traditional Garifuna music.

Duran traveled to Garifuna villages and recorded women—the carriers of oral tradition in their culture—singing in their homes, in the streets and in temples. Additional recordings in a tiny studio in Hopkins, Belize—rounded out with instrumental musicians—followed in 2002. The final product of Duran’s work was the 2007 album Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project, a collection of 12 songs that is sometimes soaring and joyous, sometimes melancholy—but always soulful, rhythmic and undeniably beautiful.

Diego, now 25 years old, began singing at age 13 after attending a healing ceremony, or dügü, at a temple where her mother worked, and where the “high priestess” was also her godmother.

“I went to see what they do at the temple,” recalled Diego in heavily accented English. “The priestess sent me home—I had no scarf. … When I went back, I ended up next to the drums [for the whole ceremony]. I couldn’t sleep that night.”

It was after that restless night, said Diego, that she, and her mother and godmother, realized that singing was her calling. Garifuna women are known for their singing—while working, while having fun, while engaged in ceremonies—but Diego is unusual in Garifuna culture in that she has made her living as a singer.

“Singing makes life easier,” said Diego. “It makes the load lighter to be lifted.”

Some songs, such as “Mérua” on Umalali (which means “voice” in Garifuna), function specifically as work songs. Others speak of the sadness of life—such as “Hattie,” about Hurricane Hattie, which ripped through Belize in 1961.

“It almost took Belize off the map,” Diego said of the Category 5 hurricane that killed 319 people in Central America.

She began to sing the passionate “Hattie,” joined on vocals by Arana.

At the end of their moving speakerphone performance, Diego added, “When they got up one morning, they had no home.”

“We sing songs in pain, in grief,” said Diego. “Even when we are happy, we sing.”

“Life just gets easier by singing,” Arana added. “Instead of picking a quarrel with someone, we sing.”