KU teacher writes songs in obscure indigenous language, becomes radio celebrity in Nicaragua’s Miskitu coast
Being a gringa who speaks the arcane indigenous language of Central America’s Miskitu people has opened a number of doors for University of Kansas instructor Laura Herlihy.
Herlihy acknowledges, they have been somewhat bizarre doors that led to her becoming a radio celebrity known as “Mairin Blu” along the eastern coast of Nicaragua.
“The show is really super popular,” she said. “Everywhere I go people just yell, ‘Mairin Blu! Mairin Blu!’ Out on the keys, in the most remote places.”
An estimated 200,000 people speak Miskitu. Herlihy has spent nearly 20 years visiting the coast where they live, becoming fluent in the language, cultivating a relationship with a revered leader, writing songs in the Miskitu language and — now — working to produce a Miskitu-language musical that she hopes will help tell the Miskitu people’s story to the rest of the world.
“The locals love that a gringa writes songs in their language,” Herlihy said. “Cultural revitalization and pride in Miskitu culture and language is especially important today because the Miskitu people are being threatened by the nation-state, the expanding agricultural front, and mega-projects such as the proposed Chinese-backed inter-oceanic canal (HKND Group’s Nicaragua Grand Canal and Development Project).”
Herlihy, 54, has been a lecturer in KU’s department of Latin American & Caribbean Studies since 1999.
Her path from being a New Orleans debutante to Miskitu celebrity “Mairin Blu” started, more or less, on her honeymoon — a sort of six-month honeymoon with no running water or electricity.
Herlihy is married to KU professor of geography Peter Herlihy — whose research focuses on Latin America, indigenous people and conservation — and she followed him to a coastal Honduran village for post-doc work in the 1990s.
“It was very gendered, so he traveled and I stayed in the village,” Laura Herlihy said. “I was left with the women and the children, and they could not speak Spanish well.”
Without learning Miskitu, she said, she couldn’t have communicated.
A anthropology and feminist studies scholar herself, Herlihy learned to speak the language and worked on research that eventually led to the book, “The Mermaid and the Lobster Diver: Gender, Sexuality, and Money on the Miskito Coast.”
After her husband was hired at KU, Herlihy — who had earned her bachelor’s degree from Tulane University and her master’s degree from Louisiana State University — began working toward her doctorate at KU, which she completed in 2002.
Since 2011, she’s led a Miskitu language summer study abroad program to Puerto Cabezas, a city of about 50,000 on the eastern coast of Nicaragua.
Over time, she said, she developed relationships with local leaders and community members there.
In 2012 she wrote some poems in the Miskitu language. More specifically, she wrote a story in poetic verse, then separated those poems into songs — a body of songs telling a single story being something new for Miskitu people.
Then she hired some musicians to perform them.
“We got it on the radio, and people liked it,” she said.
Herlihy wrote more songs, and recruited increasingly well-known musicians. Now, she said, some of the region’s most famous are performing her songs on the radio.
She’s the star of a radio talk show called “Waikna Sangni/Mairin Blu,” where she talks about the songs along with playing them. She’s been doing the show for two years, at first only when she was in Nicaragua. As of July she’s been phoning in from Lawrence to host the show three times a week.
Herlihy attributes this popularity to a few things.
One, the popular singers are a draw in the region. “It’s their best musicians,” she said.
Two, she’s an American woman speaking Miskitu, a novelty to say the least.
Three, in some small communities that lack electricity, battery-operated radio is the only form of entertainment residents have, she said.
Four, and probably most importantly, the songs are mostly about and inspired by her time with the revered, mysterious war-hero turned political leader of the Miskitu people, Brooklyn Rivera.
“He’s the name on everyone’s lips there,” Herlihy said. “People just come up and want to touch him. He’s considered magical.”
Herlihy said she’s traveled with Rivera in pursuit of her research. He’s been on board because in initial interviews, he respected that she spoke good Miskitu (she only later learned he also speaks English), plus he sees her research and writing as a way to help share the Miskitu people’s issues with the globe.
The radio show name “Waikna Sangni/Mairin Blu” translates to Green Man/Blue Woman and comes from one particularly momentous interaction with Rivera, Herlihy said. Rivera put a magic spell on her to ensure she would support him, in a ritual that involved Rivera using something green and Herlihy being bathed in a blue potion.
So a radio show featuring a gringa on the air, speaking Miskitu about being covered in some kind of blue love potion has been a hit with the indigenous people in the area.
“They think it’s hilarious,” Herlihy said.
The Puerto Cabezas tourism and mayor’s offices invited Herlihy and a group of musicians to perform a live concert on the beach over Easter weekend, with the city providing the stage, security, lighting and sound.
“How could I say no to that?” she said.
The concert, which was in conjunction with some other weekend events, drew about 5,000 and was broadcast on local TV, she said.
The music performed was the original score to “the first ever Miskitu musical,” Herlihy said, a compilation of her songs into a story titled “Waikna Sangni/Mairin Blu” just like the radio show.
The story is like a cross between “The King and I” and “Harry Potter,” Herlihy said. For now, it’s just a musical score.
“I’m trying to take it to the next step,” she said. “My dream is to turn it into a musical.”
Herlihy’s dream is to raise enough money to stage the musical — she’s launched an online fundraiser for production costs, actors and travel — and take it to the United Nations, where Rivera has spoken on behalf of Miskitu people.
Herlihy grew up watching Broadway-style musicals but was never a musician or songwriter before, she said.
She says maybe her creative inspiration had something to do with that potion.
“The whole magical thing happens in Nicaragua,” she said. “It’s like your dreams come true.”
“Pabulkam Bilara” is one song from “Waikna Sangni/Mairin Blu.” Hear it online here: soundcloud.com/laura-hobson-herlihy/waitna-sangni-mairin-blu
An estimated 200,000 people speak this indigenous Central American language. Here’s a few basic phrases.
Naksa — Hello
Nakisma? — How are you?
Yang nini (your name) — My name is
Uba lilia — Nice to meet you
Uba pain (pronounced like pine), tingki — I’m fine, thank you
Lahla apu — I don’t have any money
Aisabe — Goodbye
Source: Laura Herlihy