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Belize collective brings diverse musical mix to Canada

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Danny Michel fell in love with the music of Belize and convinced the Garifuna Collective to join him on an album and a cross-continent tour.

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Danny Michel fell in love with the music of Belize and convinced the Garifuna Collective to join him on an album and a cross-continent tour.

While the entire Western Hemisphere can be described as diverse, Belize boasts an ethnocultural mix unlike any on the planet.

The Central American nation may be the only country where a black minority -- the Kriol, who make up about one-fifth of the population -- serves as the dominant political group.

The Mestizo, who speak Spanish, make up slightly more than half the population. Maya make up another 10 per cent, the Asian community makes up five and German-speaking Mennonites -- many of whom left Manitoba in the 1950s -- comprise another four per cent of the population.

And as if that wasn't unusual enough, Belize is also home to about 15,000 Garifuna, an Afro-Amerindian group of mixed Carib, Arawak and West African heritage, once dubbed the Black Carib by their former British colonial masters.

Within Belize, the Garifuna are renowned for their music, which is tied as much to Africa and the Caribbean as it is to Central America. Fifteen years ago, this sound caught the ear of Ontario singer-songwriter Danny Michel, who was vacationing in Belize and afterwards spent more and more time in the Central American nation.

Over the years, Michel became aware that many of his favourite Belizean albums were all recorded with the same musicians, a loose assembly known as the Garifuna Collective. In 2011, he screwed up the courage to approach their producer, Ivan Duran.

"I had this crazy dream that maybe I could make an album with them," says Michel, whose wish wound up coming true.

Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me, a 2012 collaboration between the Canadian musician and the Garifuna Collective, has been released in Canada, the U.S. and Belize. It's earned a 2013 Juno nomination, a place on the 2013 Polaris Prize longlist and enough good favour to warrant a cross-continental tour -- including Winnipeg Folk Festival appearances this weekend -- for an 11-piece band featuring Michel and the Garifuna Collective.

"I spent years in Belize falling in love with their music," says Michel, who was conscious of the tendency of North American musicians to plunder the sounds of the developing world.

"They knew I wasn't somebody who was just trying to capture their sound. They knew I respected them a lot. We do everything respectfully and we're very cautious about how things look. It's a beautiful friendship and a wonderful relationship."

Michel's big pitch took place in the small western Belizean town of Banque Viejo del Carmen, in the jungle interior near the border with Guatemala. Producer Duran initially had doubts about a musician from Kitchener-Waterloo, located 5,200 highway kilometres to the north.

"What I wanted was to find out exactly what were his intentions. The last thing we wanted was to waste our time with a musical tourist that just wanted to have fun for a while while he was on vacation," says Duran, a Belizean of Spanish descent.

"We wanted to make sure this was a genuine interest and he had a genuine willingness to really get into it and get deep with the music and experiment. I quickly realized that was the case -- he was there to really engage and connect. That became really obvious with his first sentence."

On tour together, Michel and the Garifuna Collective have essentially merged. He plays their songs and they accompany him on his own tunes. The band employs traditional Garifuna percussion -- the djembe-like segunda and primero drums, as well as donkey jawbones and turtle shells -- but also modern instrumentation, as the Collective is not a traditional act in the purist sense.

The band is conscious, however, of its role as musical ambassador for Belize, its Garifuna minority and the little-known Afro-Amerindian communities scattered about Central and South America. The latter have begun to enjoy more recognition, both for their role in the development of the Americas and their cultural influence.

"It's been a long time coming," Duran says. "When it comes to music, specifically, it's so obvious that the richness of the African traditions are the base of a lot of the great music that has come out of the hemisphere."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 D3

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