Celebrities die every day and pop culture quickly moves on. But for the Garifuna people, descendants of shipwrecked slaves whose culture extends through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, world-music sensation Andy Palacio was more than a star. The Belize native, who suffered a fatal heart attack and stroke at the age of 47 in January, was the soul of a culture that many feared had been close to extinction before he committed himself to its rescue and renewal.
Palacio will be the subject of a special musical tribute today at California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, with members of the Garifuna Collective paying homage to his talent as part of the free Grand Performances series.
"We're very curious ourselves, honestly, to see what effect [Palacio's death] will have on the group," said Dean Porter of Grand Performances. "Although they may not have the, quote-unquote, star quality that Andy had, we know they bring the same authenticity that the audience comes here to engage with."
Some of the musicians played with Palacio at the venue last year. But this time, the headliners will be three women singers -- Sofia Blanco, her daughter Silvia and Desere Diego -- who are featured on a new album, "Umalali: The Garifuna Women's Project," released domestically on the Cumbancha label.
That collection is the result of a decade of fieldwork. Since 1997, producer Ivan Duran has devoted himself to the Garifuna Women's Project, a systematic effort to search out the strong female voices of this culture. Like a musical anthropologist, he visited remote villages to record women in their kitchens and temples, accumulating enough material for an album and a tour, originally scheduled with Palacio this year.
"You could feel among the women a renewed level of dedication and a sense of urgency after his death," said Duran in Spanish this week from his home in Belize. "We all felt that we had to do everything possible so that this door that Andy opened for us would not close on us again."
The women are the real stars of Garifuna culture, forged through the intermarriage of former African slaves and the indigenous Carib and Arawak Indians. The men like the spotlight, said Duran, but the women are the cultural anchors.
"Garifuna women are very strong," he said. "Traditionally, the men are fishermen and the women are in charge of cultivating the fields, as well as raising the children. They are also the ones responsible for transmitting many aspects of the culture. They have a very distinct timbre to their voices and they bring a whole different sensibility to the music."
The need to preserve the native culture resonated with Duran, who has roots in Catalonia, the area of Spain whose independent identity was threatened under the Franco dictatorship. The acclaimed album he produced for Palacio last year, "Watina," is credited with sparking the Garifuna renaissance.
"The stage of preservation is past and it's now important to move the music into the future," he said. "That's the only way young people will identify with it. And when the youth stop relating to their own music because they find it boring or old-fashioned, that's when the music will die."
Duran was an infant when his parents moved to Belize in the early '70s, an era of revolution and violence throughout Central America. They established one of the nation's first book publishers, Cubola Productions, specializing in the history and anthropology of Belize.
Two decades later, Duran became his own cultural trailblazer when he launched the first label devoted to Belizean music, Stonetree Records. Before that, artists had to travel to Mexico or the U.S. to record -- Palacio made several records during the 1980s in Los Angeles, where there is a significant Garifuna immigrant community.
(L.A.'s inaugural Garifuna Settlement Day celebration, featuring a hip-hop style lineup, is planned for Nov. 14, with tickets available at Little Belize restaurant in Inglewood and other locations.)
Duran undertook the women's project in 1997, intrigued by their voices and stories. He recorded some 300 songs by 50 women and selected 12 tracks for the album. He added touches of blues, rock, Latin and other styles to make a modern record, not just a historical document.
The music reflects the fusion of African, Spanish and Indian ancestry. Yet, in their relative isolation from the rest of Latin America, these artists preserved an authentic West African style, with high-pitched nasal vocals and echoes of tribal chants. In some songs, you can hear the core 3-2 clave beat of the Garifuna's Afro-Cuban cousins. In others, there are the joyful grooves of Afropop or an edgy electric guitar.
On one track, "Uruwei" (The Government), Duran adds the sounds of a hammock swinging on his porch with ocean waves in the background, enhancing the ambience of the rustic vocal track from his original field recordings.