From my usual late afternoon post in my hammock in my cabin at the far edge of town, the sounds of Armila’s traditional reed-flute group, Gammibe Gun Galu, blend organically into the pulsating chorus of crickets and cicadas, the gentle swell of the ocean, and the calls of birds at dusk. (If you want to listen to what I'm talking about as you read, you can listen to their album online here as you read). I’m often greeted with confused looks when I tell my peers that I'm brokering a record deal for this indigenous flute group. "What does that have to do with turtles?" they ask. To be fair, it takes a little longer than your average elevator pitch to tell the story, but the underlying connection is the foundation of our mission here in Armila.
The idea to get local musicians involved in conservation came from Projeto Tamar, a Brazilian turtle conservation organization with whom Amanda Gibson and I conducted research in 2010. Tamar's model focuses on providing would-be turtle hunters with alternative livelihoods, rather than just heavy-handedly enforcing environmental laws. In many cases, they are able to achieve this while simultaneously adding value to local culture. This was the case in Pirambú, where Tamar supported an old-folk's dance group called "Lariô" a kind of Brazilian square dance. This endemic dance tradition, practiced only in Pirambú, was dying out due to lack of interest from younger generations and a general lack of funding. Tamar came in, helped them produce a CD, and offered to put it on the shelves in their gift shops around the country with all the proceeds returning to the group. Now, Lariô da Tartaruga is a "turtle-branded," self-sufficient entity with a growing younger membership.
The upshot of all this is that locals (mostly fishermen) begin look at the conservationists as the good guys, rather than just environmental extremists from the city that want to regulate their fishing practices, just to save a few turtles. "They're supporting my town's culture, keeping my teenage kid off the street and away from drugs, and giving my grandfather something to look forward to during the week."
This model seemed all the more applicable to conservation in Armila, a town where highly-localized, fading, traditional beliefs are the only thing keeping the townspeople from eating leatherback turtle eggs in a protein-scarce town. In other words, Armila's music represents a dying ancient culture where people manage natural resources wisely.
The entirety of the Guna musical tradition (called Nogga Gobbe) revolves around plants and animals, and is in turn jeopardized by changes in the local ecosystem. Every song in the Guna repertoire is named after an animal and imitates its call or sounds. And in fact, since many of the musical instruments are made from locally gathered plant and animal materials (armadillo skulls, crab claws, particular bamboo species), decreases in these species due to human pressure mean that certain instruments aren't available anymore, therefore certain songs can't be played anymore and are being forgotten: a vicious cycle between ecological and cultural degradation. When Amanda and I came to Armila and saw a musical group in a similar situation as the one in Brazil, we went straight to work.
In 2012, my brother Terrill Mast and I flew down to Armila and made a high-quality recording in the field, then mixed it in the studio with the help of Phil Schoof, an old friend and electronic-music guru. The recordings were turned into a physical album, which was given as a perk to donors to an online crowdfunding campaign for Armila's conservation efforts. The campaign raised over $5000 for the town, which covered the cost of creating an online CD sales portal for Gammibe Gun Galu (a self-styled name which invokes the prophet in Guna mythology who brought music and song to animals and people after God created the earth). Even more of the funding went directly to the group, by means of Armila's Sea Turtle Commission, to help them buy uniforms for performances.
Two years out, Gammibe Gun Galu has had album purchases from Spain, France, Switzerland, and Japan. The group is in the process of negotiating a contract with the Smithsonian Folkways record label. They have been featured in national news, have had a documentary made about them, and have accepted an invitation (all expenses paid) to an international festival in Panama City to represent the music of the Guna on July 30th, 2014. Most importantly, they have taken the responsibility of preserving their culture (and their turtles) into their own hands; later this year, they plan to invite traditional flute groups from all over the region to a music festival, and split the revenue from tourism with the local Sea Turtle Commission. They have also begun to mentor students and a couple senior members have taken on impromptu roles as music teachers at the local school.
These successes did not come easily; they were achieved over two years, across two language barriers (Spanish and Dulegaya), from a muggy isolated town in the Darien Gap with only one telephone as a line to the outside, and with a group of people who wake up every morning to catch or harvest what their families will eat for lunch and dinner. But it's all worth it to lie in this hammock and hear Gammibe Gun Galu practicing for their debut in Panama City.