Aurelio's Honduran Pop

Sub Pop's latest world-music signee puts the U.S.'s politically minded musical gasbags to shame.

The first beats are simple wavering chords, setting a basic outline. A strong steel drum leads in the guitar, seducing hips into swaying. Aurelio Martinez gives his listener a few measures to settle into his Caribbean home before he begins his song's story—a tale of a sailor returned from sea for the birth of a son that just might not be his. Martinez's voice is simultaneously breezy and joyful, while also a bit strained, as one might be in that rather uncomfortable position.

The entirety of Laru Beya, to be released January 18 as the second project of Sub Pop's world-music imprint Next Ambiance, is an exercise in blended experience, recorded in studios from Honduras to Senegal. Like "Lubara Wanwa," the sailor's saga that opens the album, some of Martinez's songs are whimsical stories of life on the Honduran coast where he grew up, while others carry a far darker, political tone.

Martinez is a Garifuna—a member of an ethnic minority descended from people who escaped from a slave ship, bound from Africa to the Americas, onto an island in the Caribbean—whose experience in South America has paralleled that of African Americans in the U.S. A history of violence, suppression, and segregation has left much of the population in areas underserved by essentials like roads and schools. The political oppression of the Garínagu (plural of Garifuna) inspires the weightier songs on Laru Beya.

Atlántida is the Honduran coastal region where Martinez makes his home and where Garínagu are in the majority. As far as he knew, his ethnic group had never been represented in the Honduran government. So in 2006, though he claimed to "dislike politics and politicians," he ran for Congress and won a seat.

"It was a necessity for my people to have political representation," Martinez says now, speaking via Skype with his collaborator, Belizean musician Ivan Duran, aiding the translation. "We were giving hope to the youth; they could see that one of their own was representing them in Congress."

While Martinez was recording, touring, and changing politics in South America, Jon Kertzer—known to Seattleites as the host of KEXP's world-music show Best Ambiance—also had a big 2010. Kertzer had just partnered with Sub Pop to launch Next Ambiance, and the imprint's first order of business was to sign Malian artist Bassekou Kouyate. Together they released I Speak Fula, an album that debuted at #5 on the Billboard world-music chart and has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional World Music Album category—an honor on both counts, even if Kertzer bristles a bit at the world-music tag. "People don't necessarily think of Bob Marley as a world-music artist, they just think of him as a great artist," he says. "That's how I think of Aurelio."

Kertzer says it took months to find a second project after I Speak Fula because "we loved the first one so much." He was well acquainted with Duran and had known of Martinez since first seeing him perform at the 2007 WOMEX, an annual world-music expo held in Europe.

Like Duran, Kertzer was drawn to Martinez's effusive friendliness. "He is very talented musically, but he's also got a personal thing going," he says. "You don't get elected to something like that [the Honduran Congress] unless you have a strong personality."

It's more legend than certain history, Duran says, but the story is that the Garínagu were sold to slave traders from their native Africa. But on this side of the Atlantic, two ships crashed just off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent's. The people on the ships escaped onto the island.

Over the years, the Africans blended not only their ethnicity but their culture with the natives of South America. Garifuna music is an apt metaphor for the people itself. "It's a very unique music," Duran says, describing it as a blend of "African with a lot of native Caribbean and Spanish [elements] and even some from North America." The Garifuna drum, created by stretching an animal hide taut over a hollowed hardwood shell, bears a strong physical resemblance to the African djembe and possesses a similar rich, hollow tone.

In the late '90s, when he met Duran, Martinez was one of the few people in the world still playing the music known as paranda, a genre that traces its roots to the origins of the Garínagu. Duran compares it to the music of medieval troubadours—men with guitars writing songs about the world around them. Duran was making a paranda album and invited Martinez to join him in Belize to record. Those paranda songs carry the same blend of African percussion, nearly mariachi-sounding guitar, and Caribbean swing that's also heard on Laru Beya—not considered a paranda record—but it's more pared-down, lacking Laru Beya's modern twists of electronics and collaborations with rap artists.

In 1997, Duran thought of Martinez as he was putting together an album of paranda music. Most of the musicians were over 50, he says, but at 28 Martinez was trying to resuscitate the art form. Martinez traveled to Belize to record with Duran, birthing a recording partnership that shows no signs of flagging. Four albums later, the two have traveled all over the world, playing music of the Garínagu and blending it with other artists and instruments like electric guitar and piano.

In his four years in Congress, Martinez didn't limit himself to roads and classrooms. He was instrumental in establishing the Ministerio de las Etnias, a governmental agency devoted to ensuring that the Garínagu and other ethnic minorities in Honduras aren't left out or discriminated against. The Garínagu also became more politically active as a whole, Martinez says. "There are a lot more protests; there are a lot more marches."

While Martinez has left his political life, he hasn't abandoned the fight for equality for the Garínagu. "This is definitely only the beginning," he says.

It's also only the beginning for Martinez and Duran. The music they have made together is evolving with Laru Beya. With a sound that incorporated so many places and cultures already, the two men decided to see what else they could bring to it in the form of modern instruments and Afropop artists. "For the first time, we opened the music up to a lot of other influences."

Now that musical and cultural experience is about to get wide distribution north of the Caribbean, thanks to the Sub Pop deal. Duran says they made the decision to sign with Kertzer because of his years of support for musicians who sometimes have to fight for attention or respect in their home countries. "He [Kertzer] has always had a close relationship with Garifuna music," Duran says. "I'm extremely excited."

On January 17, Martinez will bring the whole project to the stage in a concert at the Triple Door. The recording, he says, "is about capturing a magical moment." Duran jumps in: "But when it's live, it's just him connecting with his ancestors."

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