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First Watch: The Garifuna Collective, 'Ubou'

It's been six years since Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective brought the beautifully rich music of the Garifuna people to international consciousness. Their 2007 album Watinabecame an instant classic, and probably did more than anything else to bring this culture and language to an international audience. But less than a year after Watina's release, Palacio, a vocalist and guitarist, was suddenly gone: dead of a heart attack and stroke at age 47.

The Garifuna Collective has finally returned with a new album that bids farewell to Palacio and continues his legacy: Ayó, which means "goodbye" in the Garifuna language. While the latest video for their song "Ubou" from Ayó boasts both the saturated, tropical colors and the lovely, lilting rhythms that have endeared the Garifuna Collective's music to audiences all over the world, the lyrics are of a different shade altogether.

The Garifuna are the Afro-Amerindians of Central America, the descendants of a group of West African slaves who were shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent in the 1600s. They live in small communities in places like Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, along the Caribbean coast. And their music is an extraordinary blend that layers soulful indigenous and African rhythms with sweet, lyrical melodies.

Singing in Garifuna – an endangered language that blends indigenous Arawak and Carib with French, English and Spanish – they take on a political and social issue that extends far beyond the Garifuna community in "Ubou."

"'Ubou' addresses a social problem," primerodrum player and vocalist Joshua Arana tells me by phone from Calgary, where the group is currently on tour. "The song starts out with a question: 'What's wrong with this world? There are children dying, they are dying from hunger.'" And Arana stresses that though most people won't understand the lyrics – since the Garifuna language is only spoken by about 200,000 people in the whole world — the Garifuna Collective means to address a global issue in this song. "The lyrics go on to say," Arana continues, "that there are governments and leaders buying ammunition around the world. Why are they fighting when children are dying?"

The video's director, Katia Paradis, is intimately familiar with the Collective's milieu. A citizen of Belize, Canada and Spain, she grew up in the Caribbean and Canada, and now makes her own home near where this video was shot — in the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo district, not far from the border with Guatemala.

"That morning," Paradis writes in an email, "the Garifuna Collective was rehearsing in an old, typical Caribbean wooden house that has been converted into a cool venue, a sort of cultural bar where local artists can showcase their talents. So I grabbed a pair of cameras and headed to the bar. I love filming the Garifuna Collective because they don't pretend anything in front of a camera, they just are. The air fills up with their particular energy, and magic happens."

Watching the video, you can almost feel the steamy air of San Ignacio. "We hadn't had rain for months, and everyone was anxiously waiting for the rainy season to start," Paradis says. "Just as I was getting there, rain started to pour."

Arana says that what stands out most to him about this shoot, though, is something else entirely. "We were having so much fun together that day," he says, laughing at the memory. " When we weren't rehearsing or shooting, we were just talking a bunch of idleness."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.