Peter Culshaw delves into the world of saudade at Cabo Verde’s Atlantic Music Expo and Kriol Jazz Festival
On my first proper night in Praia, the capital of the island of Santiago, one of ten in the archipelago of Cabo Verde as it’s now officially known, I saw local group Ferro Gaita at the Atlantic Music Expo (AME). An off-shoot of WOMEX, the annual assembly of world music professionals, AME is more focused on transatlantic music, and is in its second year. The name Ferro Gaita is derived from the ferrinha, the metal bar they use as percussion and the gaita, the accordion, brought in by missionaries. Their style is funana – a rhythmic, African style that really rocks, not dissimilar to zydeco music. Funana was banned until as late as 1975 for its subversive lyrics.
Ferro Gaita have been together 20 years and have a rare togetherness as a band. Part of the reason for AME is to promote Cabo Verdean music – and with representatives of both WOMAD and the Barbican Centre in the audience, who both raved about them, hopefully we will see them touring the UK. They certainly deserve a global platform, even if they may need a new hand with recording and their album sleeves.
Other Cabo Verde styles impressed too, including upbeat veteran saxophonist Totinho, the rap group Batchart and the laidback Dino D’Santiago [whose album was reviewed in #98]. What became clear is that the Creole language differs from island to island, as does the music.
Also making a real impact were Manecas Costa’s group from Guinea-Bissau. A decade ago, he released, to some fanfare, a rather expensive album on the BBC’s doomed own music label and at the time Manecas didn’t seem to really even want to be a star – and partly as a result of that the record bombed. But he now has a super-hot band and is worth a second look.
The centre of Praia has a pleasant colonial feel with faded colours and reminds me of other Creolised musical centres like Salvador in Brazil, Havana, even New Orleans. Comparing Cabo Verde to those music powerhouses is not entirely an exaggeration – there seems to be music everywhere. Rather than music being a decorative add-on to a culture, it is as though everything else is an extra to music – the way people walk or converse has a musical rhythm. In restaurants like the wonderfully atmospheric Quintal da Música, the place is steeped in music, with scores of musicians’ photos on the wall. The night I went there they had a group of women from a local village chanting and playing wrapped up pieces of cloth between their knees as percussion. The slaves had been forbidden from using drums and this was an alternative.
Cabo Verde was uninhabited until the Portuguese landed in about 1456 and found it a useful staging post for the slave trade. Praia was a thriving town from slavery by the 16th century. The history, perhaps more than anywhere, is of broken families – even now, more Cabo Verdeans live outside the islands than on them. One night in the Quintal I heard a singer called Sandro do a heartrending song ‘Mãe Querido’ to his mother. He sung it into his phone – she was in the US. This, anyway, is one of the causes of untranslatable word saudade – nostalgia, sadness, unrequited love, the pain of missing family and homeland are all bound up in it. The word and meaning exist in Portugal and Brazil, but here they got it bad – many will know Cesaria Evora’s version of the song of the same name.
Another version of the song I heard was from the singer Bonga from Angola, who headlined the first night of the Kriol Jazz Festival, which occupied the second half of the week. He has a splendidly lived-in voice, like a tuneful Tom Waits and when he sings you believe him. His performance rather overshadowed the other artists who in comparison seemed to be going through the motions.
One of the delights of this island is the strong Angola and Lusafrica connection – in plenty of the clubs and cabs, you could hear the amazing, sometimes brutally funky, kuduro beats. Perhaps the biggest star of the genre is a fabulous transsexual star called Titica.
There were after-parties in a new club called Freedom, where one of the delegates to AME, the debonair Samy Redjeb who runs the wonderful Analog Africa label was DJing and playing some of his the Angolan tracks from the 70s that his label put out. He was planning to stay longer in Cabo Verde to find old vinyls for a compilation of old music from the islands – of which there is a vast amount, from the much revered Ildo Lobo to the ‘godfather of funana’ Bitori Nha Bibinha.
The final night of the Kriol Jazz Festival had some world-class acts like the peerless Kenny Garrett, the Jamaican jazzer Monty Alexander and Cabo Verde’s own Sara Tavares, whose sophisticated jazzy tunes might be a little too smooth for some tastes, although being in exile in Lisbon and abandoned by her parents as a child, means there is enough saudade there to rescue her music from being merely dinner-party music. The best place to catch the jazz, though, was at a jam session going late into the night, where the likes of Garrett’s band and a group of ex-Berklee students got loose and steamed up the already humid Cabo Verdean night.