Umalali is not a group name, but the Garifuna word for voice. The Garifuna are descendents of African slaves who escaped from a massive shipwreck in 1635. They intermarried with Carib and Arawak Indians and evolved their own culture over the centuries. They were never conquered by the slave masters, but have been a marginalized minority for years, with a population centered in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. The United Nations UNESCO arm recognizes their music and culture as a threatened one, part of humanity's intangible treasures. The Garifuna Women's Project is a collection of traditional and composed songs by various well-regarded Garifuna female elders and youngsters. Garifuna music has elements of African, Caribbean, and Native American music, in particular the soca of Trinidad, the reggae of Jamaica, and the rhythms of Cuba. To North American ears the sounds are both strangely familiar and slightly alien, blending many common elements in a unique way. The album was produced by Ivan Duran, the white Belizian who started Stonetree Records to document the music of the Garifuna. The songs are traditional, even those that are newly composed, because the Garifuna see music as an ongoing process of creation. Since it's a way to convey cultural knowledge and communicate with the ancestors, songs are not owned, although everyone knows who composed the most popular tunes.
Duran and the backing musicians made no attempt to keep the music traditional, since the Garifuna, like seemingly everyone else in the world, are tech-savvy and own computers and cell phones. The album is best listened to as a single piece of music -- a ceremony, if you will -- but individual performers and arrangements do stand out. "Barübana Yagien" sounds like a combination of calypso and Congolese rhumba, while Silvia Blanco's singing calls to mind the sound of Mali's Oumou Sangare. The driving bass drums and sinuous electric guitar keep the tune moving at a rapid pace. "Hatie," by Sarita Martinez, is the tale of the hurricane that devastated Central America in 1961. It lays spaghetti Western guitar twang on top of a rolling punta rock backbeat complemented by strong call-and-response vocals. Marcela Torres has a forceful alto that stands up to the bass drums that sound like the throbbing heart of West Africa on "Anaha Ya." Sofia Blanco, one of the album's strongest vocalists, and Silvia's mom, sings lead on "Nibari" and "Yündüya Weyu." The first is a greeting to a new grandson and again sounds like the women's vocal music of Mali. Blanco's keening vocals are given minimal accompaniment by drums and guitar to preserve their primal power. "Yündüya Weyu" is more uptempo, with hints of Cuba, West Africa, and Brazil in its paranda rhythm. "Lirun Biganute" is Julia Lewis' lament for her murdered son accompanied only by a treble-heavy electric guitar that sounds oddly like an autoharp. Garifuna women have been given the task of bearing their culture on to future generations. By combining traditional vocals with modern arrangements, Duran and the Garifuna Women's Project singers hope to attract young people and world music lovers to this vital, irreplaceable culture.