Maria de Lurdes Pina Assunção always believed in destiny. Twenty years ago she mixed bits of her name, came up with Lura and plunged into a music career she knew would take her places. But even before that she knew a star was guiding her: the Cape Verdean claims Lady Fate made her descend into this world just after her nation wrestled its freedom from the Portuguese in July 1975. Her birthdate, July 31, has also been proclaimed Day of the African Woman, a symbol the sculptural singer-composer incarnates in ways few could rival. Forty years on, Lura chose that date to release ‘Maria di Lida’, the first single from her sixth and latest album Herança. This homage to a poor Creole woman Lura befriended in Praia depicts an unspoken heroine fighting morning till night to retain her dignity and the security of her family and children in the face of grinding poverty.
“I could only have written such a song by settling in Cape Verde,” Lura explains awkwardly in a deliciously creole-tinged French she has picked up over the years of visiting her father and her label, Lusafrica, in Paris. “Maria calls on me every Sunday at 8am selling her gato de maïs (corn cakes). She’s been up since 4am to provide food for her two kids and is such a warrior, full of life. You see, Cape Verde is not just about the beach, smiles or the morabeza – open spirit of hospitality. It’s also about strong people, survivors with great inner strength.”
These double layers are etched into Herança, her first album in six years. Lura brings together intense and lively tempos with the quiet chagrin of ancient songs. There are subtle expansions on the batuque and funaná rhythms from her islands, and the rebellious defiance of freedom fighters. “I explored all this through my herança (heritage), which I promised myself to explore ever since I found my voice in 1992. I’ve always wanted to honour the forefathers, learn about our history and share it.” She fingers her rectangular ring made of red fishbone that stands out starkly from her all-black attire. “It starts with our enslavement and suffering, which I sing in ‘Gorée’. But I also balance the sadness to reinvent and lighten songs like ‘Somada’,” she says of the standard by Ildo Lobo and his Os Tubarões band.
This opening out is the key to these 14 songs, operating on geographical, generational, historical and philosophical levels. Lura invited the participation of an eclectic group of outstanding accomplices, from the just-departed Naná Vasconcelos to Richard Bona, via composer and erstwhile minister of culture, Mário Lúcio Sousa. She ushered in nascent talents like the sensational Elida Almeida, who contributes the moving ‘Nhu Santiagu’. And the historical and philosophical explorations are intertwined into melancholic songs like ‘Cidade Velha’, ‘Gorée’ and the title-track, all composed by ethnomusicologist Sousa.
“All this takes time, I had to study our history even if Cape Verde’s only goes back five centuries. Some of our rhythms, like batuque, went underground during colonialism. They evolved far from the light and now I hope I’m making them evolve even more by reaching out from my base in Praia. Still, I was born and brought up in Lisbon. I didn’t want to ignore the other influences I picked up there.” The opportunities to mix musical worlds have come hard and fast. Lura’s tours and meetings have enabled collaborations that have enriched her repertoire beyond recognition. “The meeting with Naná at the Back2Black festival in Recife, for example. It was a real mutual inspiration we harnessed to interpret Herança. We mixed his Brazilian and African spirituality, religions and social commentary with the roots you still find on my islands. Naná’s maracatu gatherings of different African ‘nations,’ guided by indigenous traditions, are still present in Bahia. Somehow, in this long song, Naná managed to make my voice resonate in his percussions. Unforgettable.” The seven-minute exploration is made all the more poignant as it’s one of the final testimonies to the great Brazilian innovator who died a few months after the recording.
Lura’s quest for deeper spirituality in her music partly explains the long gap between her 2009 release Eclipse and her latest album. “I needed to step back. Things were going too fast. I had fallen into music accidentally 17 years before and I needed to breathe and decide where to go from there.” Indeed, destiny had at first seemed to point this independent thinker towards a sporting career. At 17 she studied physiotherapy, dance and swimming at a Lisbon institute and was a swimming instructor during her 20s. “But music was always in the background. My father is from the island of Santiago and brought me his funaná and batuque heritage. My mother listened to morna and coladeira music from Santo Antão from the other side of Cape Verde. When I began to turn to performing I realised it was all there, just waiting to spring out.”
Still, Lura never imagined her voice would guide her to the biggest stages in the world. “I used to be told to shut up when we sang ‘Happy Birthday’! This low husky voice would come out, it was so embarrassing I used to clap the rhythm instead. But Juka saw something in me and insisted I sing with him.” Juka, a Lisbon zouk singer originally from São Tomé who, in 1992, promoted Lura from the chorus to a duo, which became a local hit, largely thanks to the suave sensuality she infused in the dance score. For four years, Lura juggled swimming classes with studio and live guest appearances for the local Lisbon music stars. “I picked up my trade then, recorded this disco album in 1996, took singing lessons, learned my profession.”
The turning point came with her 2000 exchange with Angolan legend Bonga. “That was it,” she says snapping her fingers, “I told myself there was no more fooling around, I’m a professional now. I mean here he was, Portugal’s biggest reference in African music and he was reaching out to me, saying to embrace and develop my voice. No more fooling around juggling other professions, I had to get serious…” Their duet ‘Mulemba Xangola’ persuaded Lusafrica to sign the 25-year-old and within two years Lura had released two albums. “My 2002 CD In Love was part of a transition back to my roots, and Di Korpu Ku Alma, two years later, really plunged me into my islands. That album was so inspired by Orlando Pantera [1967-2001] and his way of writing and seeing Cape Verde, so different to the clichés drenched in morna and coladeira.” Pantera has inspired a sleuth of Cape Verdeans. His exploration of batuque rhythms and finaçon singing from the heart of Santiago Island expresses itself through his guitar but incorporates jazz. “It was tough to decipher his play on words but I never looked back from there,” says Lura with finality.
Two more albums in five years followed, inspiring Portuguese journalist José Eduardo Agualusa to write: ‘The future of Cape Verdean music has a name: Lura.’ The quality of her output and the vibrancy of her live performances filled stadiums worldwide. But something was missing. And when her idol Cesaria Evora died, the 36-year-old was, in her words, “deeply marked.”
“She was huge, our diva, she couldn’t just go! I felt orphaned. And it made me think about how I was singing Cape Verde without really knowing my country. So I picked up and left.”
Settling in the islands’ capital, Praia, wasn’t always a bed of roses, she admits with a chuckle. “My downstairs neighbour blasted his music from 8pm till 8 in the morning. When I asked him if he could stop at night he was aghast. ‘But I’m offering you this music,’ he told me angrily, ‘it’s so beautiful, it’s not just for my ears, how can you ask me to stop?’ What could I say to that, eh? My mouth dropped, I just bowed my head and moved into the quieter suburbs shortly after.”
Isolation in Praia is a relative thing, Lura admits. “It’s nothing like Lisbon, the capital is just a big family and when I step out to go shopping or relax I don’t go unnoticed.”
Yet if there is one thing the past six years have taught this thoughtful singer it is to isolate herself to better plunge into her music. Gone are the times when she declared she “lived day by day with a career that is a permanent surprise” (quoted by her publicist Frédérique Miguel in 2009). “I’m far more disciplined, maturity has arrived.” She pauses. “At last, at last!” and she bursts into infectious laughter. “It’s allowed me to work with people I admire like Mário Lúcio who was the musical director of Simentera before being our minister for culture. We’re longtime friends and, like Orlando Pantera in Di Korpu Ku Alma, Mário was a seminal influence on this latest album. I love the way he uses simple lyrics to take us into our history: the different tribes harnessed by slavery, the miracle of how they survived the transatlantic nightmare for 400 years and created a melting pot of cultures. But also his look on Cape Verdean men, how they are sometimes malicious, sometimes sensual, always independent!” These are all features that Lura admits she has shared ever since childhood: “I used to walk alone the two kilometres to school when I was a six-year-old! I’ve always felt very free, and the harder people tried to hold me down, the more I rebel. But now it’s an intelligent, responsible rebellion with a duty to my people.”
And to the generation of female vocalists following in Lura’s widening footsteps. At a recent Paris concert, the vivacious singer Elida Almeida, was effusive in her praise for Lura’s work. “She’s been a huge influence on my generation,” she tells me after the concert. “Her use of traditional instruments, her look at our heritage, her way of singing and dancing: all these things have marked us, and it’s been an honour to collaborate with her in her last album. My song, ‘Nhu Santiagu’ is a nostalgic look at my island and it’s brought us closer together.” The composition is a search for authenticity that both vocalists have successfully transmitted globally, once again underlining the astonishing musical wealth of this tiny archipelago.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #120. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs