Garifuna culture takes over Flushing Town Hall

Umalali singers and Lucy Blanco from The Garifuna Jazz Ensemble during the high energy finale.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

A beaming Ellen Kodadek, executive and artistic director of Flushing Town Hall grabbed some video shots with her phone of the exuberant crowd dancing to Umalali and The Garifuna Collective at a recent performance in the Town Hall. If engagement with the community — the goal of the Global Arts for a Global Community performance series — is the measure of success, then this evening was triumphant.

The high-energy program became a dance party as well as an immersion in Garifuna culture attracting music lovers from all over the greater metro area.

The multigenerational and multitalented The Garifuna Collective, carrying dynamic Garifuna musical traditions, thoroughly engaged the audience.

Audience members sang along with familiar songs brought to the public by the CD Watima with Andy Palacio — who has since passed away — and the Women’s Project CD Umalali.

Town Hall’s written program read: This is a rare opportunity to experience contemporary Garifuna roots music…

Garifuna culture was forged when slave ships carrying captured Africans wrecked off of St. Vincent in the 1600s. The survivors swam ashore, mixed with the indigenous Arawak population and created a unique culture that continues. Exiled in 1796 to the island of Roatan off of Honduras by the British, survivors went on to establish villages along the Central American coast.

In 2001, UNESCO officially proclaimed the language, dance, and music of the Garifuna people of Central America as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

The set began with the Umalali women holding hands as they delivered a traditional a cappella Abueymahani song before the drumming, and one-by-one the instruments of The Collective joined in.

The first half of the concert consisted of songs from the well-known Garifuna albums. The women performed several call and response numbers.

During the performance, over a foundation of ancestral beats, the powerful sound of the traditional Primero and Segunda Garifuna drums along with driving maracas, turtle shells, acoustic and electric guitars and bass grooves blended with the melodies and call and response vocals.

A masked dancer in a white Jankunu costume later appeared in a high-energy dance experience followed by many individual audience members jumping onto the stage to dance with the drums.

When the audience was asked numerous times: Are you ready to go home? There was a resounding “No!” The evening didn’t end after the many encores.

The local music group Garifuna Jazz Ensemble, whose performance set opened the evening, returned to the stage to jam with The Garifuna Collective for a finale set. The Jazz Ensemble’s saxophone, piano, and electric violin joined with the instrumentation of The Garifuna Collective, elevating the energy level even higher. This exuberant collaboration created a transformative musical experience for all.

Flushing Town Hall has a rich varied and full program of upcoming events in its Global Arts for a Global Community series running through mid-December. For information visit www.flushingtownhall.org.

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