|The Garifuna people and culture were created by one of the most dramatic ethnic mixings in history: two ships with enslaved Africans were shipwrecked off the coast of what is now St. Vincent and the Grenadines toward the end of the 18th Century, and with the help of the indigenous Carib-Indian population, overpowered the Spanish crew and escaped. Later, due to their continued resistance and rebellions against the British, their mixed progeny would then be exiled to the islands off the coast of Honduras. Instead of being isolated and dying off, their culture and oral language prospered and expanded into the Central American countries of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, where they still live.
However, because of terrible socio/political forces and war across the region, many Garifuna became exiles once again, settling in the United States: Los Angeles, Chicago, and the New York tri-state area, particularly in the Bronx. It is here that they remain determined to celebrate their culture and remain true to their heritage. Indeed, it is through their strong oral culture, transmitted through music and dance, that UNESCO proclaimed that this culture is a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage to humanity.”
Vocalist, Lucy Blanco, founder of The Garifuna Jazz Ensemble, is a Garifuna who is continuing that journey. Born in the Bronx of immigrant Garifuna parents, she grew up in their traditions. However, while pursuing her dreams in the fashion industry in Los Angeles, Lucy Blanco discovered herself as the singer she always wanted to be through jazz. During a break from the fashion scene to raise her family, she started to explore that passion in earnest, honing her performance skills at every opportunity.
While in L.A., Lucy found a nurturing environment that served as a launching pad for her burgeoning career as a jazz vocalist. The World Stage in Leimert Park literally opened a world that introduced her to the late Billy Higgins, mentor Dahl Scott-McDuff, music director Michael Andrews, as well as working with The Radiant Voices, directed by bassist Kevin O’ Neil. She looks back on those early years as the foundation for her approach and love of jazz.
In 2008 researching her family history, Ms. Blanco discovered the Garifuna music of Andy Palacio, Paul Nabor and Aurelio Martinez, and was inspired to develop the concept of fusing Garifuna with jazz. Home again in New York, she continued to be blessed with teachers and mentors who encouraged her, like the great Barry Harris, and she learned her lessons well. Ms. Blanco started to collaborate with some of the best musicians in the tri-state area, many with Garifuna heritage, like Ricardo Guity, resulting in a demo recording of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’, up to that time, the ideal blend of traditional Garifuna sounds with familiar jazz standards.
Later in the spring of 2011, the sound shifted some more as James Lovell, a Garifuna musician from Belize, and Blanco collaborated, and The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble was born. This ensemble band was comprised of seasoned traditional and jazz musicians. It incorporated much more the distinctive sounds of the traditional Garifuna rhythms Punta, Paranda and Hungu, Hungu, Garifuna song language with Garifuna Drums, maracas, Conch, Turtle shells, piano and bass. The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble recorded their debut album in June 2016 called “Taguiera,” (Homeland), with its core members, Gary “Wicked” Fritz, percussion, Hilliard Greene, bass, Julian Meyers, saxophone, Mario E. Sprouse, piano, comprising the present renamed group, The Garifuna Jazz Ensemble:
Mario E. Sprouse, pianist, musical director, composer, and arranger, has been involved in the music, theater and film worlds for nearly 50 years. He was the legendary Renaissance man, African-American photographer, filmmaker, composer Gordon Parks’ musical assistant for over 20 years, cataloguing the artist’s massive archival collection, supervising the music for three of Parks’ films, producing his first original classical music CD, performing at Parks’ funeral in 2006, as well as working on the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary about Parks with filmmaker St. Claire Bourne.
Mr. Sprouse has also provided the musical arrangements for several other films, including an award winning Best Documentary Short, and winning awards for his Off-Broadway theatrical projects. Several jazz greats, including Carmen McRae, Freddie Hubbard, Buster Williams, among others, have recorded his musical arrangements, as well as Gregory Hines and Phylicia Rashaad performing his original songs live. Mr. Sprouse also is the musical director for the Caribbean band, Circular Time.
Hilliard Greene, bassist, composer, and teacher has played and been associated with a wide range of numerous musical artist greats and genres: from 20 plus years with Little Jimmy Scott, being Minton’s house bassist to Concert Master for Cecil Taylor. “Hill” has been performing all over the world in all types of musical venues, as well as teaching both children and adults for over 25 years in classical, jazz, rock, blues, R&B and Tango. He is a faculty member of the Bass Collective.
Mr. Greene, an original member of both The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble and The Garifuna Jazz Ensemble, has recently formed The In & Out Band, a trio using jazz standards as a vehicle for free improvisation. He is the co-leader of the classical crossover group, the ZigZag Quartet, and co-produced its self-titled CD. Hilliard Greene has produced three CD’s with his own ensemble, The Jazz Expressions, a solo bass CD entitled, “Alone.”
Gary “Wicked” Fritz, percussionist, son of performing artists was raised and exposed at a very early age to musical environments and schooling that solidly nurtured him, and taught him to be a multi-instrumentalist in a wide variety of styles. Since 1974, while studying at Lincoln University, “Wicked” decided to pursue music as a profession, and has toured internationally with Big Bands, small combos and with dance companies, appearing on TV, Cable video and film soundtracks ever since.
Along with leading his own band, 7th Heaven, Gary “Wicked” Fritz has performed with George Benson, Rev. James Cleveland, Roberta Flack, The Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, Vernon Reid, and The Winans, among many others. He also has a long list of recording credits on albums and soundtracks, among them the Oscar nominated feature film, “The Visitor,” and The Horace Silver Songbook album, “Funky Pieces of Silver.”
Julian Meyers, saxophonist, composer, whose musical talents were nurtured early by public school music educators in Queens, continued to pursue his musical education while maintaining a professional career for over 26 years, playing all over the world with Dizzy Gillespie and Cecil Payne, among others.
As a dedicated music educator himself now for over 15 years, Julian Meyers exposes his students, in the same Queens neighborhood where he grew up, and now teaches, to his first love, jazz. Through his classes, and exposure to live performance, he hopes to make jazz relevant in their lives. Toward this goal, he has created programs like “Vision and Mission” and “Family Jazz Renaissance” as vehicles to emphasize jazz’s importance and to counterbalance its present lack of promotion in the Pop culture. Mr. Meyers was on the 2016 release of the Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble’s CD, “Taguiera.” He released his own album, “Emergence” and is currently working on another release.
Luisa Bastidas, violinist, Colombian born, has quickly become very active on the New York City scene as a member of the first all-female Mariachi band, Mariachi Flor de Toloache, with whom she has just won a Latin Grammy.
Ms. Bastidas’ unique sound/voicing on the violin is in demand with Emilio Estefan, as well as Latin superstar Thalia, who has used her as well, as a background vocal. She is the resident violinist of the Kinetic Jungliest Movement, playing with dancer Amy Secada and Redbull World Champion BBoy Neguin. She has collaborated with underground legends, SUPAMAN and Remind. Luisa Bastidas leads her own band, StringsNskins, which takes the listener on a musical journey throughout Latin America and Caribbean. www.luisabastidas.com, www.stringsnskinsmusic.com.
Andy Ordonez, Garifuna Drums, backup vocals, is a young upcoming solo artist. A native of the Bronx, New York, born to parents of Garifuna descent, Andy is a proud Garifuna – American and represents his Garifuna Culture with pride. His musical career began at the age of 9 back home in the village of Santa Fe, Honduras with his friends and family playing drums all over the village.
At the age of 13, Andy Ordonez joined his father’s group, "Bodoma Cultural Band.” In 2015 he released his first album titled, "Mi Tradicion," that is now available on ITunes, Spotify, Google Play, and Amazon. He also has traveled around the world with Honduran guitarist, percussionist, singer, and politician, Aurelio Martinez, (who like the late great guitarist and government official, Andy Palacio from Belize), is seen as an ambassador for the Garifuna people and culture.
Mariano Martinez, dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur, discovered his love for dance very early, and he has not stopped moving since. He is well versed in most modern dance styles, particularly of the Garifuna culture. When majoring in Psychology at Medgar Evers College, he found out his true calling choreographing for various college productions as well as his interests in entrepreneurship.
After graduating, Mariano founded his own company, J. Dove Productions, Inc. As CEO and Artistic Director, he not only choreographs special age birthday parties, but interrelates the future goals of the participants, and what they have learned, to the artistic event. In essence Mariano Martinez promotes the connection between creativity in dance to creative thinking in life, to a belief in oneself. Mariano is dedicated to continuing his work with the Central American community and encouraging and empowering youth in particular.
Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy, dancer, choreographer, dramatist, is an international writer, performance artist and Renaissance woman. She is multifaceted across many fields and attributes this to her passion for creative expression. As a performance artist, Maryam been a featured vocalist in annual Belizean patriotic showcases. As a choreographer she recently performed in the international dance festival, Dance X Belize 2017.
As a dramatist, Ms. Abdul-Qawiyy has written and directed five original stage plays, which debuted at the Women in Art showcase, and the International Pittsburgh Black Arts Festival.
She is a global ambassador and writer for Rhythm of Change (ROC Belize), a non-profit dedicated to activities that create individual, social and environmental change; as a yoga instructor she taught at the Belize Central Prison and Youth Hostel.
Currently, Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy lives in Brooklyn, New York where she is a teaching artist in Musical Theater and Yoga.
Abby London-Crawford proudly presents The Garifuna Jazz Ensemble in association with the Sanctuary Arts Initiative of Metro Baptist Church. Ms. London-Crawford, an officer of the Hell’s Kitchen Cultural Center, Inc. helped produced its annual “Rhythm in the Kitchen” Music Festival in the same neighborhood for over 10 years. Now, as an independent producer, she has produced concerts at Metro Baptist: in October, 2016 with TK Blue and Zaccai Curtis; Dick Griffin and Michael Wimberly; Elektra Kurtis and Ensemble Elektra with Reggie Nicholson, Curtis Stewart, and Kenny Davis.
In June, 2017 she co-produced with composer/trombonist Steve Swell’s “Music for Six Musicians: Hommage to Oliver Messaien” recorded live at Metro for Silkheart Records with Steve Swell, Jason Kao Hwang, Tomas Ulrich, Jim Pugliese, Rob Brown, and Robert Boston. The CD was released in October 2017.
Ms. London-Crawford has an upcoming concert March 3rd at Metro with Edith Lettner’s Freemotion CD release with Gerhard Franz Buchegger, Gerhard Graml, Stephan Brodsky coupled with her Delight band with Donald Smith, Gerhard Graml, Leopoldo F. Fleming, and Warren Smith.
Abby London-Crawford helped produce two documentaries on musicians: “Femmes de Jazz,” directed by Gilles Corre, filmed in NYC for European Television, which premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival September, 2001; and “Night Bird Song, The Incandescent Life of Thomas Chapin,” directed by Stephanie J. Castillo in 2016. The DVD of that film will be released March 20, 2018.