Posts Tagged ‘cape verde’
The Cape Verde archipelago is a collection of ten small islands some 500km off the coast of Senegal that mark Africa’s most Western frontier. This very poor and isolated nation won international recognition through the beautiful voice of Cesaria Evora (1941-2011), a singer nicknamed ‘the barefoot diva.’ Evora grew up in extreme poverty and sang in bars for decades until the male singer Bana took her to Portugal in the early 1990s. A Parisian Cape Verdean then produced and promoted Cesaria on the world music circuit. The beauty of her voice and the morna – as Cape Verde’s ballad music is described – found Evora enjoying great fame. Many other Cape Verdean musicians have followed in her wake, both veterans like Zé Luís and newbies Lura and Elida Almeida. Playlist by Garth Cartwright for Songlines.
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
Alex Robinson meets the barefoot diva who has delighted audiences around the world with her mournful Cape Verdean songs
I am nervous as I wait for Cesaria Evora in the lobby of her Paris hotel. Even her record label had given me a cryptic warning. “Have you met Cesaria before?” ask one of their reps; “You haven’t, oh well… I hope you are prepared.” “Prepared for what?” I wonder. Further investigations prompt little more but remarks about “one-word answers” and irascibility. Twiddling my thumbs as I wait, I begin to wonder about how to play the conversation. I resolve to surf my nerves and order my third double espresso from the concierge. As the caffeine hits me with its faux-adrenaline rush, the lift door opens and the barefoot diva walks out. Wearing slippers and a scowl.
I decide to plunge in at the deep-end. I’ll interview her in Portuguese. And kick off with a provocative question. So after rapid handshakes and laconic pleasantries, I ask her about her famously fiery temperament. There’s a horrible pause. Then Cesaria fixes me with a glittering eye and speaks slowly, deliberately and seriously: “I am only interested in real people,” she says, “So if I don’t like someone, they know soon enough. I just make a strange face and say nothing.” She sits in silence staring at me with a fierce look for a long ten seconds. And then in a flash her face shifts like a mask, and she breaks into a mischievous cackle: “Let’s go outside and have a cigarette,” she says and pulls me across the lobby, casting a cruel glance at the concierge (who is clearly responsible for the ‘No smoking’ policy in the hotel).
Our breath is misty in the Parisian winter air. I shiver. But Cesaria is made of stronger stuff. She suffered a stroke in 2008 on her Australian tour, but dismisses the possibility of fragility with disdain and a long draw on her cigarette. Slowing down or giving up touring is clearly out of the question. “Of course I miss my home, my country, my family when I’m away. But singing is what I do. I only know singing; it’s my life. And it always has been.” Cesaria found her vocation early. “Right back when I was six years old I remember a group of friends were playing some songs at home in Mindelo. I turned up and began joining in. ‘Sing up!’ they all said, ‘you’ve got a great voice.’ So I did and I loved it. It all went on from there.”
Music was already in Cesaria’s family. Her father and his cousin Francisco Xavier da Cruz played regular spots in the bars and clubs in her hometown, which was a port busy with sailors. Da Cruz was becoming locally famous for his stunning guitar playing and plaintive compositions. “One day a Brazilian guy who was listening to my uncle became transfixed by his playing. ‘Beleza!’ he said, ‘Que beleza!’ (Beauty! What beauty!). And from then on Francisco had his stage name: B.Leza.” B.Leza wrote many of Cape Verde’s most famous mornas, including a Cesaria classic, ‘Miss Perfumado,’ and it was he who helped the saudade-tinged melancholic music become the islands’ (and later Cesaria’s) signature style.
“B.Leza was unique. I can’t imagine there ever being another like him,” says Cesaria. “The way he played, the way he composed, the way he was. His house was a meeting place. The doors were always open. And it was always full of people.” Cesaria was one of them. And by the 1950s she had joined her father, uncle and other B.Leza friends and family – including the singer Bana – and was playing in the bars of Mindelo. By her early teens she had moved on to the cruise ships. “In those days Mindelo was still a big port and boats would harbour there from all over the world. My singing was very popular. I used to sing on the Portuguese warships and on commercial boats from many other countries, and the ships’ captains always invited us to sing privately for them.”
But whilst Mindelo’s port was thriving, the rest of Cape Verde was suffering. The melancholy of B.Leza’s mornas reflected the mood in the islands of the time. Cape Verde in the 50s was a desperately poor place. A terrible drought immediately after World War II had seen thousands of people die of starvation and as many flee the country to neighbouring São Tomé, Europe or the US. A barely discernible shadow passes across her face as Cesaria remembers. She lights another cigarette and draws hard. “But we had hope,” she sighs. “In Cape Verde we have always had to fight poverty. But we have always lived in hope.”
The biggest hope was that of independence. Discontent with the colonial Portuguese had been brewing since the turn of the century. The Portuguese had colonised the archipelago when it was uninhabited, and peopled the islands with slaves, handfuls of administrators and, later, with generations of their children. For 400 years Cape Verdeans were a people without a national identity. But with the collapse of the empire in Europe in the 20th century, things began to change in this tiny outpost of a fascist Portuguese empire run by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. In 1936 a group of Cape Verdean intellectuals begun to produce an islander-only underground magazine, Claridade. The magazine championed what had become the default native language: Creole. In Creole it spoke openly of a Cape Verdean culture, music and poetry and presented some of the first ideas of a Cape Verdean people who were neither Portuguese nor their vassals. The magazine thrived in post-war Mindelo, spurred on by the florescence of culture which came with B.Leza’s compositions and the discovery of a Cape Verdean musical style. And with Claridade’s sense of national identity came a feeling of political discontent. In the 50s, Cape Verdeans were still heavily segregated according to colour; only people with whiter shades of skin had access to education and administrative roles within the colony. And in 1954 a poor Mindelo and Lisbon-educated black Cape Verdean, Amílcar Cabral, formed an independence movement.
“I was singing at the time, still in the ships and also on local radio stations, and whilst I never experienced prejudice, others I knew did, of course. We are friends now of course and have set our past aside. But at the time the Portuguese didn’t want anything to do with us,” recalls Cesaria. “Before we eventually won independence, racism was everywhere.”
But the Portuguese presence had its positive aspects too. “Mindelo was very busy back then. This strongly influenced our culture. We were exposed to music from all over the world and musically the town was thriving. There were lots of Brazilians in Cape Verde. And we loved Brazilian music. It was the Brazilians who brought percussion to Cape Verde, as well as the cavaquinho [a small Portuguese guitar]. We absorbed their rhythms too, and played them in our own style.”
Throughout the 50s and 60s Amílcar Cabral and agitators for Portuguese-African independence garnered support around the world. They formed the PAIGC (Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in 1956. They campaigned peacefully at first, but Salazar responded brutally, shooting 50 dead and sentencing the rest to 15 years hard labour. And in 1963 the PAIGC began a protracted war that forced Salazar and the fascists out in Lisbon, just over ten years later. The new democratic Portuguese government granted independence to Cape Verde in 1975.
“Democracy was a big thing for Cape Verde. We finally had our freedom,” remembers Cesaria. But whilst she was happy for her country, her singing career had suffered. During the upheaval Mindelo’s harbour and bars had quietened. And they were even emptier after the departure of the Portuguese.
Just as Cesaria had begun to forget the idea of singing again professionally, she received an invitation from her old friend Bana. Bana had found a new audience for B.Leza’s mornas in a revitalised, post-dictatorship Lisbon. And he was eager to share his success. Cesaria began to perform at his restaurant in 1985, and cut her first disc Tchitchi Roti shortly afterwards. Then in 1988, another Cape Verdean expat, José da Silva, invited her to come to Paris to record La Diva aux Pieds Nus, for his new label, Lusafrica. It earned her a loyal fan base in Paris. Her subsequent albums, Distinto di Belita and Mar Azul began to be played on French radio stations and with DJs raving about her smoky, honey-tinged voice her concerts were selling out. In 1992, Cesaria broke internationally with Miss Perfumado. It brought her a Grammy nomination and the assurance of huge success.
But as she stubs out her final cigarette, heading out of the Paris winter and back into the hotel, Cesaria assures me that success hasn’t changed her one jot. And nor will it ever, she assures me. “Some people call me the African Edith Piaf or the Creole Billie Holiday,” she says, with the undisguised contempt of a woman who has been at the forefront of shaping a national identity. “It’s not true,” she says. “I am me. I am Cesaria Evora. And I am from Cape Verde.”
Cesaria’s Best Albums
A best-seller that broke Cesaria’s career internationally. Classic morna ‘Sodade’ was the biggest hit but other wonderful moments include a rare political song, ‘Cumpade Ciznove.’
One of many Grammy-nominated albums but this one has more uptempo coladeiras than languid mornas. Cesaria rarely sounds happy but she seems to be having fun on ‘Tchintchirote’ and ‘Regresso,’ joined by stellar instrumentalists like guitarist Bau, clarinettist Luís Morais and jazz saxophonist James Carter.
The songs are soothingly rendered, accompanied by an array of acoustic instruments like clarinet, crisp percussion, piano, guitars and basses, cavaquinhos and a single violin. And ‘Mar de Canal’, with its interplay between Cesaria’s voice and a violin playing in the same register, is as beguiling as anything she’s recorded.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #67 (April/May 2010). Subscribe to Songlines
Watch the new video from the Cape Verdean singer for ‘Ilha De Santiago’ below
A gently upbeat tribute to the largest of Cape Verde’s islands, ‘Ilha De Santiago’ is taken from Andrade’s fourth album Lovely Difficult (released on Sterns).
Watch a making-of clip: