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Aurelio Martinez, from the Atlantic coast of Honduras, hailed as one of the most dynamic Garifuna musicians of his generation, with his versatile group, lit up the stage and, the crowd at Union Chapel. Having reviewed his widely acclaimed, second album, Laru Beya (By the Beach) and seen him captivate the crowd at WOMAD Charlton Park this year, I was still unprepared for the impact of his glowing set. This, the first of this season’s ‘Making Tracks’ concerts at Union Chapel bodes very well for the series.
Garifuna is the term for the hybrid group of people originating from the intermingling of a group of West Africans shipwrecked in St. Vincent on their way to a life of slavery in the ‘New’ World and the local Callinago people who were themselves a mixture of Arawak and Carib groups. After fighting the British colonizers, the Garifuna were ‘deported en masse and left for dead’ on the Caribbean coast of Central America – Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, including the mainland, and the island of Roatan. Though their struggles continue, in 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the Garifuna language, dance and music as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Tangible Heritage of Humanity in Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize.
As a youth, Aurelio began his musical life with guitars made of cans and fishing line, learning from his songwriting mother and local troubadour father. By the age of 14, he was already a respected musician ‘with a firm grounding in Garifuna rhythms, rituals and songs’. Aurelio’s career took a global turn when his late friend and fellow musician, Andy Palacio invited him to a major Garifuna festival. Today, he continues to enlighten and enchant as he carries on his mission of ‘uplifting and expanding what it means to be a Garifuna artist,’ playing music rooted in the traditions of his youth, yet still, all his own.
Knowing firsthand that Aurelio spreads happiness when he plays, I had no doubt that this would be a fine show. But, merely citing this set as fine does not define it, for it was truly, sublime, in every sense of the word! Aurelio, in as distinctively emotive voice and vibrant personality as ever, led his hard working band as they bounced their varying sounds off his, with all ending up inspired, including the audience. His wonderfully lilting and expressive voice was accompanied by two hand drummers, guitar, bass and keyboard, with one musician vigorously playing various hand held percussion instruments. Aurelio has a flair for storytelling within the context of a song, and this was heightened at times by a loping, irresistible beat which his fellow musicians maintained, whatever the pace, even down to a Latino flavoured crawl. Two guitars, Aurelio’s and that of his band’s superb guitarist provided double the heady whine. An explosion of free form dancing in the aisles of the chapel took place during the second song!
But a set focusing on songs from his Laru Beya, beguiling from the first, with one stunner after another exuberantly hurled at us, meant we couldn’t help dancing more or less non-stop throughout. Even when songs occasionally slowed and became more contemplative the crowd sat captivated, hanging on each note. And so it should be, for Aurelio’s star is definitely on the rise. Though, the power of his music lies in its’ earthiness, which speaks directly to everyone listening to it, despite any language barriers. At WOMAD, I could almost feel Aurelio’s star rising, this time, I saw it in the audience’s reaction as their appreciation and excitement grew as the concert went on, drawing us into a cheering mass by its end.
Favourites (nearly every song is) from Laru Beya included the wonderfully buoyant ‘Lubara Wanwa’, the smooth and sultry title track, ‘Laru Beya’, subtly hooking ‘Yange’, and so on, the difference here being that each of Aurelio’s seemingly, seminal songs was revved up several notches live, its percussion, singing and playing made all the richer and irresistibly infectious by hugely engaging performances from Aurelio and each member of his fantastic band. One of the many songs that left a lingering impression was ‘Bisien Nu’, which seemed to have a direct line to the heart, its’ live performance was that impassioned, though it never fails to inspire, even on the CD. ‘Mayahuaba’, also from Laru Beya is another classic you’d find yourself subconsciously humming, even in a concrete jungle. This show sent Aurelio’s fans straight to listening/dancing heaven, reeling in plenty of new fans as it flowed along!
It may seem like a paradox to site music with social content as enjoyable, but music is always, doubly effective and, worthwhile when it has meaning offering chances for greater understanding. ‘Tio Sam’ is a good example of this duplicity, for although it is beautiful to the ear, concluding as it does with part of a traditional female song set to a gunchei beat, it speaks of the deeply sad migration of slaves to the US.
While at times on Laru Beya, it seemed as though a chorus of female voices sing behind Aurelio, live, the singers were all male. But that could be a trick of the listening ear, as some singers have voices that sound so distinctive it’s difficult to envision their true origins; such is often the case with voices that speak for ‘the people’. Major crowd pleaser, ‘Nuwaruguma’ was just one of several numbers which saw front row visitors from the Honduran embassy dancing among the crowd. But World Music’s finest grace is that it reminds us that we’re all members of the same world. Aurelio’s concert definitely celebrated that fact. The dance inducing impetus was further raised by ‘Ereba’ which sent us into happy overdrive.
In some cases, an enjoyable ‘battle of the guitars’ ensued with Aurelio’s guitar wailing alongside that of the band’s very excellent guitarist, whose name, sadly, I didn’t catch. Likewise, each musician had his own sunny moment, wowing the crowd with a knock solo, later, each in turn generating smiles by doing some ‘don’t try this at home’ dancing. Though it has to be said that Aurelio himself excelled in the latter!
If you don’t have Lara Beyu yet, which, it comes as no surprise, was recently nominated by FRoots for best New Album of 2011, you’ll want to add it to your collection ASAP. Don’t wait for Christmas; we all need the positive vibes his music gives us, as often as possible. Though you’ve missed Aurelio himself this time around, once you get stuck into his moreish album(s), you’re sure to be on the lookout for him in future. For, like his music, Aurelio’s live shows are always, experiences that stay with you.
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