Gentle Trends

Nicaraguan folk-music duo Guardabarranco blends music and social issues with hope, justice and love.

Mired in our culture of $4 lattes, high-speed Internet connections, 10-minute oil changes and fluffy teen pop, we might not always consider what it means to flee your home country, fearing for life and liberty.

This Sunday is the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Sanctuary movement, and to mark the occasion, Nicaraguan folk-music duo Guardabarranco will perform at tiny Southside Presbyterian Church, where the seeds the movement were planted.

On March 24, 1982, houses of worship throughout the United States declared the beginning of the underground Sanctuary movement, their collective goal to provide safe passage to Central Americans attempting to escape from corrupt governments and life-threatening living conditions.

The Asylum Project of Southern Arizona will commemorate the anniversary of Sanctuary this weekend with a conference featuring keynote speaker Robert White, the former United States ambassador to El Salvador. Actor and human-rights activist Mike Farrell will be the master of ceremonies.

The weekend's events will include a reunion of Sanctuary workers and refugees, workshops, poetry readings and the Guardabarranco concert.

At the time of the Sanctuary movement's founding, then-teen-age brother and sister Salvador and Katia Cardenal (now 41 and 38, respectively) already had been performing together as Guardabarranco. They took their name from their country's national bird, which is not known to survive in captivity and at the same time symbolizes precariousness and bravery.

The two began singing together in 1979 in Managua after the Sandinistas ended the dictatorship of Gen. Anastasio Somoza and encouraged artists around the country to create new work.

The Cardenals also then joined the new government's Literacy Campaign, and with scores of other high-school students, traveled to teach reading to adults in rural areas of Nicaragua.

In the early 1980s, a new musical movement was spreading through Central America, that of nuevo canción (new song), a non-partisan, humanistic and often gentle trend toward folk music about social issues. In Nicaragua, nuevo cancion was called volcanto, combining the words volcano and canto (song). Guardabarranco's style obviously fit well into the category, although the siblings' compositions long have eschewed specific issues of global politics in favor of personal truths and uplifting spirit.

The duo's delicate tunes, written in Spanish by Salvador, combine elements of traditional folk and pop music forms and address subjects such as, in Katia's words, "hope, nature, respect, justice, love and introspection," without indulging in polemics.

In a 1993 interview, Katia said, "We try to talk about things that can be understood or felt 20 years later or 100 years ago."

Her brother went further, saying, "I just try to write songs that you might find on a rock 1,000 years ago."

Salvador's song "Guerrero del Amor" (which translates as "Love's Warrior") served as the inspiration for the 1996 movie Carla's Song, directed by noted English filmmaker Ken Loach.

"Guerrero de Amor" is a prime example of the duo's goal to communicate personal mean through universal truths. "If you are an American, or an American soldier, you don't have to know (the song) was inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution," Katia has said. "You just understand the words as a universal feeling."

Together, the siblings have released such albums as Si Buscabas, Dias de Amar and Casa Abierta, toured the U.S. six times and performed with Silivo Rodriguez, Pete Seeger, Bruce Cockburn, Melissa Etheridge and benefactor Jackson Browne, among other musical luminaries.

On a global scale, they have played throughout Central and South America, as well as in Eastern Europe, Norway, Finland, Spain, Germany, Great Britain, North Korea, the former Soviet Union, Canada and the United States. Although Guardabarranco has performed in such Tucson locations as the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Temple of Music and Art, the University of Arizona's Social Sciences auditorium and at the annual Tucson Folk Festival, the Cardenals have not been seen or heard from here in six years.

During that time, Katia lived for several years in Norway with her husband. She reportedly has sold thousands of solo albums consisting of her Spanish translations of Norwegian folk songs.

At the same time, Salvador has been raising a family in Nicaragua while continuing to write songs, especially those defending environmental concerns and expressing hope for the future of the world's children. His compositions for and about children have been embraced by the Save the Children campaign.

Now both living back home in Nicaragua with their respective families, Salvador and Katia Cardenal are performing again as Guardabarranco and will embark on a short American tour commemorating the Sanctuary anniversary. Salvador has written a new song, "Santuario," in honor of the anniversary. He and his sister will perform it together on the tour.