by Isaac Würmann
The Caribbean waters and dense rainforests of Belize may seem like a dramatic departure from the rugged northern landscapes of Canada, but that’s exactly where Ontario-born musician Danny Michel went to record his latest album. Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me, which was recorded exclusively in Belize and features the Belizean music group the Garifuna Collective, is an equally dramatic departure from the sounds of some of Michel’s earlier albums.
“My favourite thing in the world is to combine music together that is not supposed to be together,” Michel said in an interview over the phone in reference to his latest collaboration with the Garifuna Collective. The album was nominated for World Album of the Year at the 2013 Juno Awards, but Michel hopes that this label won’t deter some of his previous listeners. “I wish that people would have an open mind and not think that world music just means some lady dancing with bananas on her head. There’s a wonderful bunch of music out in the world that I found that in our culture we have the doors closed to.”
After a decade of visits to Belize, Michel began to get to know the region better as well as the people who call Belize their home. More recently, he has set up a fund to raise money for scholarships to send children from the community of Caye Caulker to school. “It’s changed my view on everything in life… It’s been an incredible experience, the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It’s hopefully been making me write more thoughtful songs.”
To add to this experience, Michel also found recording in Belize to be profoundly impactful. “It’s a different world down there… It’s a good reminder of how spoiled we are here. All their equipment is held together with gaffing tape.”
However, despite the lack of expensive equipment that can be found in Canadian recording studios, the Garifuna Collective still pulls off an exceptionally beautiful sound. From rich electric guitar riffs to distinctive beats on Garifuna drums, they are a precious token of the often overlooked but musically vibrant Garifuna culture. “I think that the secret ingredient that they have that we don’t have is heart… When you have a bunch of equipment that is broken, and it doesn’t sound as fancy – you can’t put auto-tune on it, you can’t fix it with a computer and all that – there’s one thing you can do, and that’s play better and be better.”
Writing songs with a purpose is not a new concept for Michel. The title track from his 2008 album Feather, Fur, and Fin, a passionate ode to our environment, was featured on David Suzuki’s Playlist for the Planet. “As I get older I just think… the world gets crazier, I think it’s important to say something. There have been enough songs about girls… I would like to have a little more substance in my music.”
His recent experiences in Belize have also made him contemplate our situation here in North America, including our privileges. “I think travel, and seeing the world is the number one thing that can open people’s minds to what the world is really about. There are people who never travel and never leave the country; they don’t even know that we are quite lucky.”
On the other hand, Michel is a firm believer in letting art come naturally. Allowing this ebb and flow of the artistic process to guide his pen when it comes to songwriting has contributed to the variety among Michel’s albums. “I don’t think that art should have demands put on it. Art is art… whatever you contribute is wonderful. I feel like it has to be a natural, beautiful, real thing that happens.” “Basically I just keep changing what I’m doing to amuse myself and keep myself interested. I’ve never been able to understand how some artists just play one style of music forever… That’s like a prison sentence!”
As for where the future may take him, Michel isn’t sure. “I’m hopefully always changing, I mean my next record… I dunno, maybe I’ll go to Russia and make a punk rock album.” (Look out for Danny Michel with Pussy Riot coming soon to a record store near you!)
While he may travel around the world to record his music, Michel remains a regular to Winnipeg. His 2010 live album was recorded at the West End Cultural Centre, because as Michel puts it, “it’s the greatest room… Winnipeg has great music fans.”
Although not playing at the West End, Michel will be back in Winnipeg this summer – you can catch him on the Main Stage at the Folk Fest on July 12.