Generation Next: Cabo Verde Music Beyond Cesaria
The title of this article might be deceptive; it might lead you to expect the next generation of young Cape Verdean artists fit to grace the musical airwaves. Well, we’re halfway there. What I’d like to do is introduce another set of musicians from Cabo Verde with roots in Cabo Verde who you should be spending your money on. They are the next wave you should be investigating if Cesaria Evora and Sara Tavares have already whetted your appetite as to what else the islands have to offer. As you’ll see, some are not young by anyone’s estimation but they all deserve of a hearing.
Another reason for wanting to write this article is to ‘respond’ to what I can only call provocation; an article in a World Music magazine which claimed Mali was country from which emerged the greatest African music. Now, I don’t want this to be some sort of competition between great African music nations but it was fighting talk as far as I was concerned. So, in the spirit of gentle, rhythmic unity let me put the case for another nation.
The unhidden reason for this exercise is to introduce some wonderful music and musicians and to prove that at this moment, nowhere else in Africa is producing such a wealth of great music.
Why ‘beyond Cesaria’? Well, for most of the world, what they know of Cape Verde’s music is restricted to knowledge of the late, great Cesaria Evora. The great Cize’s legend is safe and untouchable and I have dealt with that in another article. ‘Beyond Cesaria’ also because the music is wide-ranging and not just Morna, the style perfected, popularized and which found its peerless exponent in Cesaria. In truth, I could have called the article ‘The Nine Isles of a hundred musical styles’, such is the rich and varied tapestry of the music coming from these islands. In reality, the article should be about two countries, Cabo Verde and Guinea Bissau. Although the planned political and economic union between these nations that jointly fought a war of independence never happened, the people of the two nations continue to view themselves as one, musically and culturally. Had I decided to include all the great musicians from Guinea Bissau in this article that would have well and truly closed the ‘argument’ for all time.
By the time we get to the end of this musical journey, you should be ready to take out that second mortgage to buy not some but all of this music. Each one comes with the highest recommendation. And, please note, these are only some, not all of the ones you should be hunting down and getting lost in. You will not be disappointed. I’ve avoided some obvious greats, who would otherwise make the list as they have already achieved some measure of international success and renown: the divine Sara Tavares, Mariana Ramos and Lura spring immediately to mind.
Let me first of all introduce you to someone you has yet to properly start her recording career. Fattu Djakite, is a young songstress from the island of Sao Vicente (originally from Bissau), who, apart from a single under her own name and 2 or 3 guest appearances on other people’s records has yet to make a her debut proper. However, based on one stunning live performance at Mindelo’s Casa Da Morna (House of Morna – a kind of House of Blues, appropriately enough, nightclub and restaurant on Mindelo’s seafront).
If you already didn’t know, it is worth mentioning that the islands are united as one country but they each have their own distinct and distinctive musical styles. In some senses, they are so different that they may as well be different countries. What does unite them is an unbelievable and enviable sense of patriotism. Not the jingoistic, nasty kind but one that revels in and celebrates the nation, its traditions and its peoples (lots of differences there, as well). In fact, I defy you to go to a concert by any Cape Verde artist and not hear a song about Cape Verde, the country or ‘their island’ in particular – almost impossible.
As for the musical styles? You have Morna, Coladera, Funana, and Batuk to begin with. An explanation as to the intricacies of the various styles is for another article.
When Isabella and I chose to base ourselves in Sao Vicente for the whole of the almost 2 weeks we were in Cape Verde, it was not by accident. We knew it to be not just the birthplace of Cesaria but also an island with an unparalleled musical past and present. Hearing Fattu sing, we realised, if we hadn’t already, that we had made the right choice.
For someone yet to really make a splash on record, she commanded the stage like a real professional and had a firm grasp of her music, the band and the audience. We were eating out of the palm of her hand from the first note she sang. And, boy, did she sing.
The set consisted of a variety of musical styles, not all of it from Cape Verde. She did some Reggae and an Afrobeat medley. But one of, if not the killer on the night was when she performed Karyna Gomes’ (also from Guinea Bissau) N’na Nega Bedju (from Karyna’s latest CD – see later). She slowed it down from the original and wrung every last ounce of emotion out of the lyric and the beautiful melody, all the while accompanied by a band of world class musicians, more of which later. A fellow guest seated at our table said it was the most beautiful song he’d heard in his whole life and that it had him close to tears. I hope he won’t mind me sharing this memory. When the song finished, the applause rang long into the night and the musicians received a well-deserved ovation. You had to be there. Remember the name: Fattu Djakite.
Neuza – Neuza’s ‘Flor di Bila’ was released in 2013 and revels in inviting the listener in to the rhythms of the island of Fogo Island: have you heard of talaia baxo or rabolo. The immediate hit “Trabessado”, which she shares as a duet with Michel Montrond (also from Fogo), another singer deserving of your time and money, introduces us (me included) to curcutiçan, a traditional lyrical battle between female and male voices, where they tease each other, the woman in this song, ribbing the man about his virility. If you get a chance, check out either the official video or the ‘live performance’ video and you get the picture. The whole album is superb and deserves the widest possible audience.
Elida Almeida – her album “Ora doci Ora margos” is her first CD and has already rightly been hailed a classic. She is 22 years old but writes, plays guitar and sings with stunning maturity and authority. The album is by turns catchy, thoughtful and of the highest instrumental quality. This is not a case of one aspect outshining the other; everything fits perfectly. The CD opens with the insanely catchy Lebam Ku Bo, which, in one section, even has guitars with a touch of Soukous! By the time you get to the last song, Sofa, you will know you have been listening to a future great of African music.
Nancy Vieira – if you tried to describe an archetype of the singers featured, Nancy Vieira would be that person, not only is her father a sailor (not unusual for an island nation), she sings of the sea and was born in Guinea Bissau and moved back to Cabo Verde with her parents as a young girl. Her voice is strong, soulful and quite majestic. She sounds as if she has been singing all her life and probably has. I urge you to check out her CD No Amá, a record of rare poise and beauty.
Rui Lima – just so you don’t think the islands only has female musicians, let me introduce you to another artist from Sao Vicente and someone who has been around a long time, firstly as a dancer, then a member of group and now a solo artist on his fourth album Ser Feliz.
Rui is like a one-man jukebox of the styles popular in Cabo Verde – Inevitably, there is amour and sodade. He also takes us on a tour of the 9 islands by playing Coladeira, Sanjon, Batuku as well as Afro Zouk, which is almost as popular in the islands as the home-grown sounds.
Fantcha – Many singers would like to say they learnt their craft at Cesaria’s feet, well, here’s one who can say it and mean it literally: Fantcha was a childhood friend to Cesaria Evora’s daughter Fernanda. From the great diva she says she learnt how to caress the rhythms and wring emotion from a song. She has made far too few records. I know of two CDs, Criolinha (“Little Creole”) from 1997, and Viva Mindelo from 2000, celebrating the Mindelo carnival and her early life. The latter title also tells you which island she’s from.
Jorge Humberto – His album Ar De Nha Terra has a cover that gives the game away; not only is he soulfully caressing his acoustic guitar but, it also includes the words (in Frencch) Musique traditionelle des iles du Cap-Vert (traditional music of the Cabo Verde islands). Not that there is any danger of this music fading away, such is the love the islanders have for their traditional sounds but it gives that extra reassurance when it is in the hands of a consummate performer like Jorge.
Karyna Gomes – I’m slightly cheating here – remember I mentioned the Guinean Bissau connection? That’s where Karyna Gomes is from. However, as with many artists from these almost-twinned countries, their popularity in each is almost on the same par. Karyna’s song N’na Nega Bedju (see Fattu Djakite above) is now accepted as a standard a mere couple of years after being released. Her rich and varied voice allows her to explore the widest range of musical styles. A feature she shares with many of the other artists covered here.
When Ceuzany ‘left’ the group Cordas Do Sol, there must have been many who doubted the wisdom of that decision. However, one multi-selling CD later and the same folks are now asking why she took so long to leave. I say ‘left’ as, in the ‘Kassav model’, all the members of her former group provide vocal and instrumental backing of this record. Cordas do Sol, had released the stunning album “Lume d’lenha” which sold 35000 copies in a country of 600,000 inhabitants! The lead-off single Ultimo Chance, from the album Nha Vida, has proved to be one of the biggest selling records to come from the islands in recent years. She is definitely one to watch as the solo album allows her to explore a wide musical palette, including some jazzy touches on a couple of tracks.
Tcheka is one of whom it could be said, he hit the ground running. His first CD introduced the world to Tabanka Assigo, which is now regarded as a modern classic, fit to stand with all the classic tunes of Cabo Verde’s past. It didn’t hurt that an established super star, Lura, covered the song and made an even bigger hit out of it. The two have performed the song as a duet on stage many times since.
Michel Montrond (CD launch promo above)
Michel is a firm favourite across Lusophone countries but is an especial favourite across Cabo Verde; if you get a chance, check out his YouTube concert videos. He mixes a fluid guitar style with strong melodies, great stage presence and a sort of ‘cheeky chappie’ on-stage persona that translates even if one can’t yet understand the language! His CD Kamin Di Bedju is a great advert for his skill at composition and performing. To date, he has also duetted on-stage with Neuza on the brilliant “Trabessado”, yet another tune from an artist featured here that has gained ‘classic’ status in record time.
As well as those mentioned here who have released music on disc, there is probably ten times that number yet to enter a recording studio. The band that accompanied Fattu as well as the house band at Chez Loutcha, one of our favourite restaurants were both of the highest standards. Many places advertise ‘musica ao vivo’ (live music). It is true in the majority of cases but there are some that do this to draw in the audience. After a couple of hours staring at a stage filled with un-played instruments, the realisation will dawn that there’ll be no live music. Other than those few minor inconveniences, you will be spoilt for choice.
I cannot end this without a special mention for Cordas do Sol, who I have mentioned in relation to Ceuzany. The group has been around since 1994 and just seems to get better. Their 2 most recent CDs have been varied and stunning in their musical breadth. If you had to get one, may I suggest as an introduction to the group, the CD “Lume d’lenha”: brilliant from first track to the last.
Please don’t think of this as some sort of uncritical endorsement of all things CabVerdean; far from it, many artists and CDs have been omitted from this write-up, I have instead chosen to feature a fraction of the crème de la crème.
There you have it, some of the greatest music to come from that clutch of islands ‘West of Africa’ (as some of the tourist brochures have it). Every one mentioned here is worth spending your hard-earned money on. Get searching and get spending!
Reporter: Ade Daramy