Danny Michel performing with Garifuna Collective at folk fest

New album recorded in Belize with producer Ivan Duran

Danny Michel with the Garifuna Collective, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Main Stage performance, Saturday, July 20 at 5 p.m. For complete schedule visit thefestival.bc.ca.

FOR his latest album Toronto rocker Danny Michel decided to do something completely different from anything hed done before.

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His new eight-song disc, Black Birds are Dancing Over Me, recorded last winter in Belize, features Michel performing with musicians from the Garifuna Collective. The recording sessions took place over several months but the actual concept for the album started percolating in Michels subconscious many years before.

I first went to Belize over 10 years ago on a trip, loved it, and Ive gone back every year since, he says. I got more and more involved in the community and started working with a school there and always kept thinking it would be great to make a record there. The music and the vibe has been slowly sneaking into my music over the last few records and this time I thought lets do it right and do the whole album there.

Hanging out on Caye Caulker, a small island off the north coast of Belize, Michel listened to a lot of local Garifuna punta music including records by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective produced at Ivan Durans Stonetree Studios.

They do all these records and I thought why dont I just ask these people if theyd be interested in doing a record with me, says Michel.

The Canadian musician contacted producer Ivan Duran by email and sent along a link to a video of what hed worked on previously. Duran liked what he saw and invited Michel to come down to his studio.

Stonetree, based in Benque Viejo del Carmen, inland near the Guatemalan border, is on the opposite side of the country from where Michel was staying. Travelling back and forth to record the album he now knows Belize like the back of his hand.

Its been a big, long adventure, he says. We talked about doing it in the summer of 2011 and I said, OK, I will come down for November, December and January and hangout and well work then. We picked a date and I showed up. I came down with no songs, no guitar, nothing and just walked into a room with complete strangers. I just wanted to get outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself. It was an incredible experience.

Michel was used to writing and recording quite differently from Duran and the Stonetree musicians but they figured out a collaborative process that would work for everybody.

We just started recording sections, says Michel. We didnt even know each other. We just looked at each other and went OK here we go. We would sit around playing ideas and grooves and stuff. He was like, Thats really cool lets record that. We would record a groove for a little while and these things would turn into songs which is the exact opposite of how I would ever write a song.

The most interesting part was all the equipment, the gear. Were so spoiled here. We have so much fancy equipment and they dont have access to that. It was a real eye-opener for me to record on guitars that, I dont want to say theyre bad but theyre not up to North American standard instruments. You get handed a guitar and its missing a string. Its got five strings. And then the answer to that was: Learn how to play your song with five strings. Deal with it. Theres lots of songs Im playing guitars that are missing strings.

It actually changed my whole perspective of guitars. I came home to nice guitars and I look at them and go, Hmm, Im not interested in you anymore. Im looking for all these weird half-working interesting guitars now.

The album was recorded over a three-month period last winter with Michel returning to Canada over Christmas. Everybody in the band is a master stylist with guitarists Sam Harris and Al Ovando, percussionist Rolando Chichiman Sosa, and vocalist Desiree Diego all adding their respective talents to the percussion-heavy mix.

They were incredible, says Michel. I learned a lesson too about playing with heart. They may not have the best gear but they play better because of that. They were just so welcoming and so fun, so relaxed and so great to me. It was beautiful and I dont even think I realized it until it was all over.

Black Birds are Dancing Over Me by Danny Michel and the Garifuna Collective is on the Polaris Music Prize 2013 Long List for Best Canadian Album. Ten finalists will be announced on July 16 with the winner revealed on Sept. 23 (polarismusicprize.ca).


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