Danny Michel brings a taste of Belize to folk fest with Garifuna Collective
Having criss-crossed Canada and beyond for more than 20 years as a singer-songwriter, it’s not as if Danny Michel is a newbie when it comes to dealing with the headaches of touring.
But the 42-year-old does sound legitimately frazzled on the phone from Vancouver, where he is taking a break from unravelling the tangled logistics involved in organizing a seven-week jaunt with Belize’s Garifuna Collective.
As with many indie songwriters, Michel is used to the lone guitar-slinger approach. So he may be little out of his comfort zone. Today’s dilemma is the dearth of large rental vans available in Calgary for when this unwieldy group of 10 arrive to play the folk festival at Prince’s Island Park.
It’s just the latest challenge for the ambitious tour, which has already taken the act to Winnipeg and Vancouver’s folk festivals. In the past few weeks, Michel has had to deal with booking expensive accommodations (“It costs us $1,000 to sleep, every night,” he says), helping secure visas, finding transportation and — perhaps most unexpectedly — addressing the concerns of government officials. The latter was due to some of the percussion instruments the Garifuna musicians were bringing into Canada, specifically rattles made of turtle shells.
“We have to deal with the Department and Fisheries and things,” Michel says with a laugh. “It’s ridiculous. But, yeah, we got it all sorted out.”
Of course, stepping out his comfort zone was all part of the plan when Michel began recording his latest album, the Juno-nominated Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me. But even he admits to being a bit taken aback by the scope of the project when it came to taking it on the road. Michel has played the songs on the album as a solo act, but the shows featuring the Garifuna Collective have proven to be lively, colourful affairs.
“It makes it all worth it when you play on stage,” he says. “The shows are going great. But it’s a big job. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of and its crazy to think that it all happened from a little seed of an idea.”
Michel had long admired the music by the Garifuna Collective, a group that performs a unique strain of celebratory music found in coastal cities in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Michel had been travelling to Belize for vacations for 15 years, often soaking up not only the sun but the rhythmic music of the Garifuna as well. Upon discovering that many of his favourite albums in the genre — particularly those by Paul Nabor and the late Andy Palacio, the Garifuna Collective’s former singer — were recorded in the same studio, Michel approached producer Ivan Duran of Stonetree Records to ask if he could record there with some of the musicians he admired. Michel brought in some song skeletons and let the players — including percussionists, singers and guitarists — augment them with Garifuna’s complex rhythms.
Michel, it turns out, was among the first western musicians to record there and quickly realized there were some cultural differences when it came to the art of recording.
“I got schooled, man,” he says. “In North America, everything we’ve been taught and told is the right way to record and the right sounds to get, they go for the exact opposite. They think those sounds that we would get are cheesy, in a sense. To have a really, really good guitar and a really great amp and a really good mic and get a good sound, they kind of giggle at that. Which is such a mind-blower for me. It’s a lot scratchier and a lot more rough. If you make a mistake when you’re recording, tough s — t, you move on. It was a really good lesson in vibe and groove and energy and stuff like that.”
And so Black Birds was born, an endearing world-music blend that mixes the collective’s instinctual vibes and understated virtuosity with Michel’s measured pop smarts. For longtime fans of the songwriter, the adventurous nature of the project shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., musician’s work has always showcased a certain artistic restlessness over a 25-year career, whether it be his early run in the late-1980s as part of reggae-ska act The Rhinos or his decision in 2004 to release an album of David Bowie covers.
His fans are happily following him on this off-road excursion as well, Michel reports.
“The CD sales at my shows with my good-old songwriter fans in Canada are through the roof,” he says. “It’s beautiful. I’m so proud of my fans, I’m proud of the band and proud to be a part of everything that is happening.”
Whether or not Michel records another album in this style remains to be seen, but he has certainly shown commitment not only to the music, but the region as well.
He established the Ocean Academy Fund and has so far raised $50,000 towards educating youth in Belize. He recently returned to the island to emcee the Academy’s graduation services.
It’s his way of giving back to a community and culture that gave him such an artistic boost these last couple of years.
“This music they are doing is bigger than music,” Michel says. “It’s kind of a mission. I know that sounds grandiose, but the Garifuna culture — which is a people and a language — is something they are trying to preserve.”
Danny Michel and the Garifuna Collective play the Calgary Folk Music Festival main stage Thursday at 6:30 p.m.