Folk Fest: The enduring tale of Umalali
On the Caribbean coast there lives a group of people that work tirelessly to support their families and preserve their culture. Descendents of shipwrecked African slaves who bred with various Caribbean native groups, the Garifuna, as they are known, developed a rich language with deep ties to traditional African roots and music.
Now, as the world evolves rapidly into a more globalized community, this fascinating group of people faces immense challenges to their way of life. The United Nations has gone to the point of putting the Garifuna on its list of endangered human cultures.
It was this knowledge that led musician and producer Ivan Duran to the various Garifuna villages scattered in Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua and Honduras in search of exception female voices. This is where the story of Umalali, meaning “voice” in Garifuna, begins.
After being inspired by Sofia Blanco, a 54-year-old mother of four residing in Livingston, Guatemala, and her daughter Silvia, Duran realized he had tapped into a hidden form of music that much of the world had never been exposed to. Next on his travels, Duran met a seasoned vocalist in her late 20s by the name of Desere Diego.
“I guess that’s my call, to sing. I have loved singing from birth, so here I am,” says Diego, one of few singers in Umalali that speaks in English.
The powerful voices of the Garifuna women echoed with touches of rock, blues and funk music is what gave Umalali’s 2007 debut album The Garifuna Women’s Project its worldwide appeal. The group has since taken their sound to international audiences in places like Germany and North America.
I think the music has been received very well,” Diego says, “The way people respond to what we are doing even though they don’t understand what we are saying is great. We are presenting our culture to them and I think it has gone very well.”
Folk Fest Spotlight
Shows: Thursday evening mainstage, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Saturday 10:30 a.m. Stage 1 (with Corey Harris & Phil Wiggins, Kat Danser, The Sojourners) & 1:50 p.m. Stage 4 (with The Mekon’s Susie & Lu, Les Misioneros del Norte, Mirah)
Sunday 4:10 p.m. Stage 6 (with Akron/Family, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Good Lovelies)
For Umalali’s website click here
Diego explained that traditionally Garifuna women saved their talents for a ritual feast where community members come together in a temple, known as a Dugu, and honour ancestral spirits in hopes of healing a living family member.
“Umalali project is based on singing what has happened to us. We sing from the heart because of what has happened,” Diego said.
She points to an example where singing partner Blanco underwent an excruciating child labour that kept her bed-ridden in hospital for three days. Out of this ordeal came one of the group’s songs on The Garifuna Women’s Project.
As the group continues to advance and attempt to boost its exposure, Diego sees the music “evolving. We are heading for more music and more importance that our culture can give to all people.”
As for the group’s time at Calgary Folk Fest, Diego looks forward to collaborating with other musicians from around the world in the weekend sessions.
“When we have done the workshops before, I was kind of surprised thinking ‘hey, how will three bands be on the stage at once, how will this work out?’ ” Diego said. “But after getting used to it a little it ends up being really fun. Working with the others gives me more energy.”
The dedicated vocalist also welcomed all Calgarians who are intrigued by traditional Garifuna music.
“I would like them to come out and see what we have as a surprise for them. Seeing the women, the Garifuna women, and how we will rock that show,” Diego says, adding with a chuckle, “Look out for me, I’m coming in.”