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Garifuna Women Preserve Culture in Song

The UN has a category for endangered human cultures, called "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." At the top of that list are the people known as the Garifuna: coastal dwellers of Central America, and bearers of a unique brand of Afro-Caribbean music and dance. A new album by the Garifuna Women's Project was released last week. On Umalali, the women, who have always been keepers of the oral culture of the Garifuna, sing stories of Garifuna culture past and present.

For decades, Belizean music producer Ivan Duran has painstakingly recorded them in their kitchens and living rooms, later adding elaborate arrangements in a proper studio back home. A similar formula took the world-music scene by storm last year on the album Watina, featuring the late Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, which will tour with the women this spring across the U.S.

The Garifuna — who descend from the survivors of an African slave ship that ran aground off St. Vincent in 1635 and the island's Carib Indians — survived encounters with French and English colonists, and wound up scattered across Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize. While the menfolk tended to the sea, the women kept the cultural fires ablaze. The stories they tell are culled from the struggles and sorrows of everyday life.

The album's opening track, "Nibari (My Grandchild)," sung by the Garifuna's most accomplished voice — Sofia Blanco — is an appeal to a young woman not to follow a life of sin.

"Let me have a word with you, my grandchild," she sings with a plaintive wail, "Leave behind those street-walking girlfriends of yours / That is not glory, that is not luck." Accompanied by guitar and a bass drum, her vibrato-laden voice is almost Edith Piaf-like in its naked emotion.

Other tales told are of the ravages of Hurricane Hattie, sung by Desere Diego and Sarita Martinez. During recording, Martinez often was too busy with family and household chores to spare an hour to sing.

And the last track on the collection, "Lirun Biganute (Sad News)" by Julia Nuñez, is perhaps the most affecting. Recalling the death of her son, a policeman in Belize, she sings, "Oh, what sad news I receive at noon today / What will become of me now that you're gone?"

Garifuna culture may be be endangered, but the Women's Project creates a legacy that will endure.

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David Was