Text and photos by Banning Eyre
New York’s Lincoln Center has been offering some super-hip programming this summer. Last night’s triple bill of music from Cuba (Carlos Varela), Honduras/Belize/Guatemala (Aurelio Martinez and Garifuna Soul) and Peru (Susana Baca) offered a superb example at Damrosch Park. There was variety, spirit, musical excellence and a winning blend of familiar and not-so-familiar talent.
Carlos Varela opened with a set of Nueva Trova song-craft from Cuba. Beginning in the ‘80s, Varela has been around long enough to see this genre evolve from staunch defense of the Revolution, to careful but clear criticism of the status quo it has engendered. With his electric guitar, retro sideburns and goatee, black beret, and most of all, his reedy, soulful voice, Varela led his six-piece ensemble with confidence and verve. This is a genre that depends heavily on words and meaning, so non-Spanish speakers miss a lot. The music itself was a genial strain of pop rock with soaring vocal refrains and dashes of Afro-Cuban rhythm. Varela certainly had his diehard fans in the wonderfully diverse audience that pretty much filled the available seating in this premier summer venue. When his 50-minute set came to an end, many cried out for more. It’s not often that New York’s Cuban community gets such a vivid and visceral shot of cultural life back on “the blessed isle.”
Next came Aurelio Martinez of Honduras. Martinez was a champion singer of Central America’s Garifuna music culture even before the genre’s biggest name, Andy Palacio, rose to regional and eventually international stardom a few years back. The Garifuna descend from escaped African slaves and Caribbean natives, and they preserve a unique language and culture, one that is marginalized and even endangered. Martinez served as a Member of Parliament in Honduras during the peak of Palacio’s career, but when Palacio died suddenly following a stroke in January, 2008, Martinez was almost automatically anointed as Garifuna music’s new standard bearer.
Since that time, Martinez has been a beneficiary of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and he spent much of 2009 in Senegal working with Youssou N’Dour. All this history and experience showed in Martinez’s stirring and masterful performance at Damrosch Park last night. With former members of Palacio’s band on the stage, three Garifuna drummers, and three guitarists (including Martinez himself and producer Ivan Duran), the Garifuna Soul outfit cooked from the first note to the last. Dressed in white and sporting a crown of thin dreadlocks, Martinez was unstoppable—singing, picking, dancing, flailing, smiling radiantly and energizing his musicians and the crowd with his every move. He paid tribute to Palacio and Garifuna legend Paul Nabor, and for a sizeable contingent of New York’s Garifuna community in the audience, the response was palpable and infectious.
Mostly, Martinez featured his own new songs. He recently completed an album three years in the making, and it will soon be released in the US on Sub Pop’s Next Ambiance imprint. Ivan Duran, the album’s producer, told me last night it’s the “best Garifuna CD yet,” and since he also produced the genre’s most successful recording so far, Palacio’s Watina (Cumbancha), the claim has to be taken seriously. We’ll wait and see about the recording, but based on the Lincoln Center show, the songs sound powerful—tuneful and spirited, blending rich percussion, spicy guitar interplay and achingly beautiful vocal arranging. Garifuna music is simple and direct in its melodies, sizzling and subtle in its rhythms, and with a charismatic front man like Martinez at the helm, it’s impossible to resist. By the end of his set, most of the crowd was out of their seats and dancing.
Susana Baca’s Afro-Peruvian ensemble came next, fronting a pared-down lineup with just nylon-stringed guitar (sometimes charanga), bass, and drums—no cajon or donkey jaws this time, and no special guests. The sound was subtle and focused, and her voice sounded as refined and glorious as ever. Baca has a way of inhabiting her vocal performances with her body, and especially her face. She may close her eyes and purse her lips and let the music possess her. When she sings, she gives all, channeling the refined spiritual power of this remarkable genre. Afro-Peruvian music has a strong element of creative imagining in it. Songs remembered from the foggy and obscured African experience in Peru play a role, but the elegant, slow, polyrhythmic lando and other Afro-Peruvian forms are truly Peruvian creations. And they are exquisite. Baca’s performance included elements of jazz, Andean folklore, and other tropical music genres, yet it never shed the distinct mark of this uniquely beguiling contemporary genre.
Baca’s set built through stages, balancing periods of introspection and uplift. The lighting was sometimes dramatic, enhancing the dream scape she and her musicians created on the stage. Near the end of the set, Baca called out for Aurelio Martinez. No surprise that the champion of Afro-Peruvian culture would have a soft spot for the Garifuna. Martinez appeared onstage for a warm embrace, and his percussionists soon followed for an ecstatic finale jam. The two groups blended beautifully, and Baca seemed delighted with the spontaneous consort, which culminated in a tasty percussion blowout. It was a moving conclusion to a remarkable night of music, the sort of night that has made Lincoln Center a trailblazing venue for the sort of music Afropop lives and breathes. Keep it coming!