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Saramaccan Sound
Where the River Bends Is Only the Beginning Tom Bolton , January 24th, 2024 09:12

From Suriname, two brothers sing of the devastation already wrought by climate change

Saramaccan Sound are named after a river and a language. A former Dutch colony, Suriname extends from the sea to the Amazon and the Saramacca flows through the middle. Saramaccan is spoken by people of West African descent and combines English, Portuguese and several African languages. For the latest in Glitterbeat’s Hidden Musics series, producer Ian Brennan travelled to a remote rainforest location to record brothers Robert Jabini and Dwight Sampie performing their own songs in Saramaccan. They sang through the night on their porch, composing tracks on the spot, Brennan following with his microphones desperate not to miss the flowing music.

The exoticism of a remote jungle setting is alluring, but the very first track is a warning against making assumptions. Entitled ‘Some Kind of New Beginnings’, it is sung to the tune of community choir staple ‘You Raise Me Up’, originally recorded in the 2000s by a band called Secret Garden. It has infiltrated itself, evidently, into corners of the globe far from its Northern European origins. The international routes of the languages that came together to form Saramaccan are still open, channelling music to whoever is listening.

However, the brothers use the yearning tune to express their particular sadness and hope. The album expresses the struggle for continued existence in places threatened by the rising water levels brought by climate change, or dams funded by the powerful, or both. They do so in low rich voices, which weave in and out of one another in a natural harmony. Jabini and Sampie have clearly been singing together all their lives, and the result is a mode of pure expression. ‘Some Kind of New Beginnings’ acknowledges an ending but insists on a new beginning too.

There is no need to speak the language to understand the message of tracks such as ‘Villages Swallowed by the Floods’, ‘Sweet River (The Government Drowned Our Village for the Dam’ or ‘Thank God, I Made It Through the Night’. There is a lot for them to be furious about, but Saramaccan Sound don’t sound angry. Instead, their music is a blues – a way of processing and controlling adversity by channelling it through a culture. The album closes with a track called ‘Ancestor Call’, a riot of home-made drums recorded beside the river as villagers played a death rite. Death is always close to the surface on ‘Where the River Bends Is Only the Beginning’, but a somewhat humbling level of optimism.

The brothers’ writing is remarkably personal too. ‘One Mother, Two Hearts’, about their relationship, was apparently written on the spot – a remarkable demonstration of musicianship. It is a melancholy but layered piece, with the kind of gorgeous melody that most writers would happily spend weeks refining. Playing nylon-stringed guitars, as steel rusts in the Amazon humidity, piano, some percussion and occasional whistling, the Saramaccan Sound is complete, absorbing and sophisticated.