Elijah Wald African music pieces

[Home] [Bio] [Jelly Roll Blues] [Robert Johnson] [Dave Van Ronk] [Narcocorrido] [Dylan Goes Electric] [Beatles/Pop book] [The Dozens] [Josh White] [Hitchhiking] [The Blues] [Other writing] [Musical projects] [Joseph Spence]

Back to the Archive Contents page


Outside the windows a cold rain is falling, and the Charles River reflects the lights of Boston. Inside, it feels like another continent The crowd is mostly African, and the music is the infectious beat of Zairean saukous. The dancers move in gentle rhythmic undulations, then leave the floor to share a quiet drink with friends.

This is Coconut Club, the latest in a series of African dance clubs that have briefly flourished around Boston. Beginning in February, it has lured dancers every Friday to the Howard Johnson Hotel in Cambridge. This month, the club has begun featuring live bands along with the recorded dance music. Local favorites Kolo Mboka performed two weeks ago, and tonight the club will play host to one of the top outfits in contemporary soukous, the Quatre Etoiles.

The Quatre Etoiles, or Four Stars, are a quartet of soukous veterans, their resumes reaching back to the 1960s and reading like a virtual who's who of Zairean music. They got together in Paris in the early 1980s to record their first hit album, and have reunited regularly in the intervening years, though each continues to pursue solo projects. Their new album, "Sangonini" on the Stem's Africa label, is a dazzling mix of lilting guitars, sweet vocal harmonies, brassy horns, and a rhythm section that never lets up.

Interviewed from a New York tour stop, singer and composer Nyboma credits the band's success and the popularity of soukous in general to the music's adaptability. "Soukous is always evolving," he says, speaking in French. "And there are many Africans, not only Zaireans, who are playing this music. This is because soukous is mixed with juju music [from Nigeria], high life from Ghana, and at the same time with the zouk music of the Antilles. It is this mixture that has made it such a success at an international level."

To take full advantage of the music's popularity, many of the top Zairean groups have had to locate outside their home country. "In Zaire it was very difficult," Nyboma says. "The record plants did not even have the basic materials to make records. If you wanted to make a record, you had to go all around and get old records and bring them to the plant so that they could melt them down. Even if you had a very good band, very good songs, and made a very good recording, you could make only a few records.”

Because of such pragmatic concerns, and to Zaire's oppressive political situation, the center of the soukous world has been shifting to the large Zairean communities of Paris and Brussels. With the shift has come new popularity among white Europeans, making African clubs a standard feature of the European dance scene. In the United States, things have gone more slowly, but here as well the soukous audience has been steadily growing.

Nowa Lubega, the Ugandan organizer of Coconut Club, hopes that by bringing in live bands he will give new impetus to the Boston scene. "It's difficult to dance to recorded music if you don't know what it is, or what they're saying," he says. "But once you start watching the bands you get into it, you buy records, you begin to have your favorite groups. Then you want to go see them live, and it sort of feeds on itself."

Lubega organized the Club Serengeti in the South End three years ago and has promoted occasional concerts since. He intends the Coconut Club to run every Friday through the summer, with live bands twice a month. Judging by a recent visit, the club is a pleasant, relaxed place to dance to current African hits, or just to sit at a table, listen and watch the dancers.

It is also a good place to pick up contemporary African dance styles, which are much more low-key than most Americans would imagine. "I notice that the Americans usually dance to the guitar, which is very complicated," Lubega says. "If you dance to the guitar licks, the dance you do will be more vigorous, whereas a lot of Africans like to dance to the beat, which is a lot more subtle, more steady.

"Also they do different dances. In the middle of a song, someone will shout - what they call the animation - he will say the name of a dance, and people will do that Most of the people here are not Zairean, but the music is popular in many African countries. So they won't understand every word, but people who listen to it pick up the meaning of certain words and also learn the dances from watching the bands when they give concerts."

Back to the Archive Contents page


African music is at the root of virtually all modern pop, from rock,soul and rap to jazz, country and the multiple fusions of the world music movement That being the case, it should not surprise anyone that Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour is able to move effortlessly from traditional local rhythms to smooth R & B ballads, from duets with talking drums to duets with Branford Marsalis and Neneh Cherry. After all. he comes to it all from the source.

Yet listening to N'Dour’s new album, "The Guide," the ease and seamlessness of the musical links is still startling. The first track, “Leaving (Dem)," is classic African pop, but the rest of the album moves back and forth in a middle ground that is N'Dour's personal preserve, culminating with a Wolof translation of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom."

It is a work that makes most "world" fusions sound clumsy by comparison, and N'Dour, who appears with his 12-person Super Etoile band in a World Music concert at the Roxy on Tuesday, is conscious of his uniqueness.

"I think I do something a bit different compared to those artists who have been known up to now," he says, speaking in French. "It is a newer image relative to what people know of Africa. I try to work with the music and invent new things, and when I collaborate with Western artists I always find people who want to blend things with me, not those who just want to play. To meet and truly blend with someone, that interests me very much, and I have been fortunate to find people who truly respected my ideas."

Some Western critics feel N'Dour goes too far, that his Senegalese mhalax sound has been buried by Western influences. Judging simply by the instrumental backgrounds of his songs, there might be some justice to this view, but it leaves out the amazing rhythmic imagination of N'Dour's vocals. His singing drives the songs, and adds a flavor that no Western vocalist could even attempt.

Furthermore, N'Dour has by no means forgotten his musical roots. He still uses the same band he formed in his days as a local star in Dakar, and he remains very conscious of the home audience even as he expands his musical boundaries. He is quick to admit that some of his newer songs will be less interesting to his Senegalese fans, but adds that he is always careful to give them some straight-ahead, old-time dance music as well.

Despite his international fame, N'Dour continues to live and primarily perform in Senegal. "The world is very large, and when you are a world artist that takes up a lot of time," he

says. "But I always like to spend time at home. Last year, I stayed in Dakar to work on the disc, and we played all the time, in clubs with 500 people and concerts with 30,000."

One great satisfaction of being home is that the audience can understand N'Dour's lyrics. His writing is full of social and political messages, and he sometimes finds it frustrating when audiences cannot understand him. "It is difficult I think first one must feel the music and receive the message through the rhythms, and then try to understand with the translations on the records. It is not easy, but it's the only thing I can do. It is not my fault if people cannot speak Wolof. We have always had these problems with songs that come to us from America and Europe, and now the problem goes in the other direction as well. That is the world."

N'Dour's linguistic stance perfectly matches his musical approach, and explains his success. He refuses either to let his music be seen as an ethnic flavor of the month or to let it be changed into something that is not his own. As a result, he creates an organic fusion that remains true to itself. He is trying to be the voice of contemporary Africa, an integration of ancient cultures with a modem, Europeanizcd world, and he sees the music as a potent force for Africa's future.

"I do not purposely write about politics and social life," he says. "But when you become more sure of yourself musically and of your position, that reflects in the songs. I do that which I live. My music resembles me, because I am a modem man. But that does not mean that I do not recognize that the old ways were better in many domains: in social structure, in justice, in human relations. At home, the people listen to my songs and get the messages, and it is certain that music can have more force than politics, more force than many things."

Back to the Archive Contents page



Tommorow night’s appearance by Salif Keita at the Somerville Theatre is the most eagerly awaited African concert of the season. Keita is a superstar on the order of Youssou N'Dour, and regularly fills stadiums in Africa and Europe, but this is his first American tour.

Keita made his name in the 1970s as lead singer for Les Ambassadeurs in his native Mali. In 1984, he moved to Paris and his music took on a more international flavor, but he never lost touch with his roots. His last album, "Amen," produced by jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul, seamlessly blends traditional Malian musicians and singers with a variety of outside influences.

"All of this is natural for me," Keita says, speaking in French. "If it is not natural, I do not accept it The music I make is Malinke, Bambara, Malian in general, and I've listened to a lot of other music, like salsa, American and English. When I was young, we listened to James Brown, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Millie Jackson, Aretha Franklin. We felt this music because, after all, it was influenced by African music. We understood it, and that is why it interested us."

Keita says he always loved music, but the transition to performing was very difficult "At home, it is not easy to enter the musical field," he says. "Each person naturally, when you are born, you are bom in a family and that family has its work. Me, it was an aristocratic family, and we must either be farmers or warriors. "It was a problem when I began to play music. I was at school, and I couldn't continue because I see badly; I am nearsighted, and I couldn't study. So I left the village and went to the city and tried to get by, and I fell into music. In music, I could explain myself and make my suffering understood."

It has been a long time since Keita played for tips in the bars of Bamako, but his lyrics still reflect the pains, beliefs, and hopes of those days. The songs on "Amen" are striking for their depth and power, and for a poetry that comes through even in translation. "At home, music and rhythm counts, but what counts most is the lyrics," Keita says. "If people don't feel that you are attempting to propose solutions for the society, if you have nothing to say, then they are not interested."

The writing is so clearly at the center of his art that one wonders if Keita is not frustrated to be singing for audiences who cannot understand him. "It is not a problem," he says. "Because the way of singing can convey the message. Maybe they don't understand the words, but people in general are very intelligent They understand more or less, without too much explanation, because the way of singing proves to them that you are saying something important The world is open to other civilizations. I am finding the American audiences very enthusiastic, and now rap is entering Africa. There are no doors that can be closed to music."

Still, after his years abroad, Keita is ready to go back to Mali. "I have been in France 10 years, but I never let two months pass without going back," he says. "Now, in 1994 I want to go there definitively. I would like to do farming as well as music, because that is also a life I love. One goes abroad to have experiences, contacts, and to educate oneself, but then, especially if you are from a country like Mali where everyone has need of this experience, it is important to go home."

Back to the Archive Contents page


The Pan African Orchestra

African music tends to be divided between pop stars and dance bands on the one hand, and more folkloric or tradtional players on the other, with each at times attempting fusions that will broaden its audience or give its music stronger roots. The continent does have court styles, especially around the ancient kingdoms of West Africa, but some of these are not suited to touring or concert performances, and for reasons of history and ignorance the others are generally thought of as folkloric. The European concept of concert music is foreign to African culture—indeed, it has only existed in its present form in Europe and America for about two hundred years—so while in some sense one might call the music of the griots, for example, an African classical style, they are more like Europe’s vanished bards and court minstrels than like modern Western orchestras.

The Pan African Orchestra was an attempt to change this situation, by creating an African group that functions like a Western classical ensemble. Considering that the European form evolved to fit specific conditions, supported by the rise of a large, stable middle class that has not appeared in the same way in most of Africa, this is a daunting task, even leaving aside the musical differences. However, Nana Danso Abiam decided to make the effort. The Ghanaian composer and musicologist dreamed of creating a classical, orchestral form that was at the same time completely indigenous, and his quest has produced unique and startling music, though the difficulties of touring and the demands it makes on its listeners have prevented it from capturing a wide audience.

Abiam says that the orchestra grew out of research at the Institute of African Studies in Accra: “I really felt there was a big vacuum in our system, because we have a lot of influence from Western sources and electronic music, and that alienated most of our cultural workers. So we thought we should try to safeguard our musical culture and instruments by making a conscious attempt to work closely with traditional musicians from different parts of Ghana and Africa, to put together an orchestra made of various instruments to fill this gap.”

Abiam has a background in Western classical music, and before forming his own ensemble he tried to put his ideas into practice as director of the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra, a post he assumed after returning to the country from London in 1985. However, he says that the symphonic players were less than supportive: “Most of those musicians regard our musical instruments as primitive. They didn’t see why we should use bamboo flutes, for example, while the metal transverse flutes have been developed. Or they’d rather use marimbas and vibraphones instead of using the traditional xylophone that we have here. But I was saying that one major problem we have in Africa is our dependency on Western culture. Once we have been able to solve this issue of over-relying on Western concepts, then that would be a starting point for us.”

Abiam decided he would have to take a different approach, bringing together traditional village musicians and molding them into a sort of African classical orchestra. His impulse was not only musical but societal, an attempt to fuse disparate local styles into a group that would encompass all of Ghanaian culture, and eventually cultures from throughout the continent. Thus, he called his project the Pan African Orchestra, and made plans for an international assemblage of 108 musicians. So far, though, he has had to make do with a core ensemble of roughly thirty musicians drawn from various Ghanaian ethnic groups.

Even in this reduced version, he says that the Orchestra’s formation was no easy feat: “We had to deal with quite an amount of problems. For example, there was the problem of standardizing the pitch levels of these instruments, to make it possible for them to play in concert. Most of our instrument makers make instruments for the immediate village society, and some of these instruments become incompatible when you mixed them together.

“There was also the issue of orienting traditional musicians, because most of the members of the orchestra have acquired their musical skills by living in the villages and learning from

their elders, rather than going to schools. So when, for the first time, they had to perform in large ensembles that involved various other instruments, we had to go through a psychological process, a whole orientation to familiarize ourselves with this new way of making music.”

These difficulties make Abiam’s triumph all the more impressive. The Orchestra’s first album, Opus 1, sounds both completely natural and unlike anything else on record. Just as European composers took older dance and court forms and reshaped them into a music that was complex enough to reward concert listeners, Abiam has put together a work that is deeply imbued with African village traditions and yet has the variety and sophistication demanded of serious listening music.

“We don’t describe our music as traditional,” Abiam says. “Because traditional music is not played on stage, it is played in the villages, within its socio-cultural environment. What we are doing is presenting an art form that we like and that draws on traditional music, and to consciously make sure that we maintain the traditions. I need to make sure that the tradition is alive, that it’s well-maintained and that it’s right, but society has changed and evolved from the days when these musics were developed. Therefore, the music we are doing is reflective of today’s demands.”

Along with his devotion to older folk styles, Abiam has been careful to remain in touch with more recent sounds and fusions, adapting the work of popular musicians like Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo Kuti for his orchestra. “Fela was very resourceful,” he says. “The work that we are presenting from his repertory was recorded in the seventies, and considering that he could think along the line that he had been thinking and put all that stuff together, I think that he is a very great guy. So we are slowly exploring his works and rearranging them for the orchestra. And of course, we are trying to explore musics from other composers as well. But because of the newness of the instrumentation of the orchestra, we haven't had many people write for it yet.”

Abiam says that his hopes for the future would be for the orchestra to become truly pan-African, bringing in instruments and themes from throughout the continent, and to establish a conservatory of African music, so that the process he has begun can be expanded and continued by other musicians and composers.

“Right now we don’t have such programs in our institutions,” he says. “We have African music programs, but they are focused on history and sociology, and not on the applied areas of African music. And because of the lack of exchange programs, it becomes difficult to know what is happening next door. If you want to study to play the kora, you have to go to Senegal, if you want to study the mbira you have to go to Zimbabwe and so on and so forth. So there are many things we still hope to accomplish. But I think that the project has been very successful. It is at a very embryonic stage, with a lot of phases to go through, but when we compare it to the Western symphony orchestra, which is about 300 years old now, I think that it’s been a very successful project, both technically and from the cultural point of view.”

Back to the Archive Contents page


Fela Anikulapo-Kuti obituary (1997)

By Elijah Wald

When Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died on Saturday, Africa lost its most politically outspoken musical voice. For a quarter century, Fela was a thorn in the side of Nigeria's successive military rulers. His songs attacked social problems, political corruption and police brutality, naming names and showing no regard for his personal safety. As a result, he was frequently arrested, beaten so badly that for several years he was unable to play his saxophone or keyboards, and jailed for extended periods.

Fela combined African and African-American soul styles in a ground-breaking fusion he called "Afro-beat.'' Born in 1938 to an upper class Nigerian family, he got a degree in music from London's Trinity college, and set the city's clubs on fire with his first band, Koola Lobitos. Returning to Nigeria, he found himself in competition with a wave of Nigerian James Brown immitators. Himself heavily influenced by Brown, Fela mixed this sound with African percussion and vocals, and made the revolutionary step of singing in "broken English,'' making his songs comprehensible throughout Anglophone West Africa.

While on a tour of the U.S. in 1969, Fela became heavily politicized through contact with the Black Panthers. He renamed his band Afrika 70, and began the string of defiantly inflamatory songs that made him renowned as a voice of the people and a dangerous troublemaker.

Fela's early 1970s recordings, four CDs of which are available on the Stern's Africa label, defined his basic sound: an unstoppable rhythm section driven by the great drummer Tony Allen, a battery of blazing horns, and Fela's voice, sax, and organ. Musically, these remain his most exciting records, as later recordings, designed to fill full sides of an LP, alternate brilliant vocal sections with extended organ and rhythm passages that can get monotonous.

If his music became less pointed, Fela's politics only became more biting. Four albums on the Shanachie label include several later hits, such as "ITT (International Thief Thief)'' and "Beasts of No Nation,'' an attack on Reagan, Thatcher, and the white regime in South Africa.

It was his songs about Nigerian politics, though, that caused the most stir, and his insistence on living his views. He openly flaunted the country's drug laws, and declared the family compound where his band lived an independent state. The government destroyed this commune in 1977, in a thousand-man raid in which soldiers beat men, raped women, and threw Fela's 82-year-old mother out a window, causing injuries leading to her death.

The soldiers had been provoked by "Zombie,'' a song denouncing them as mindless tools of the oppressors. Fela responded by parading his mother's coffin through Lagos and recording "Coffin for Head of State,'' blaming the president for her death. He further thumbed his nose at society by marrying all 27 of his female dancers and singers in a mass ceremony.

In 1984, Fela was jailed on the eve of a U.S. tour and spent 18 months in jail. On his release, he made a triumphant appearance at the huge New Jersey Amnesty International benefit, then followed up with two American tours. In recent years, though, he became somewhat withdrawn, divorcing his wives and refusing tours and interviews, apparently on the advice of the spirits. His approach to business led to his recording rights being incredibly tangled, even by African record company standards, and Stern's Ken Braun warns that many may soon go out of release. Those that are available, though, are well worth hearing. Fela was a great musician and one of the world's bravest artists, and his songs remain as powerful as ever.

Back to the Archive Contents page


Ricardo Lemvo

By Elijah Wald

Ricardo Lemvo is the latest arrival in one of the richest popular music traditions of the 20th century, the string of African musicians who have taken inspiration from the African-diaspora music of the Caribbean. Lemvo has just gone a little farther than the others. Raised in Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo (formerly Zaire), he has relocated to Los Angeles and teamed up with Cuban and other Latin musicians to form an Afro-salsa band, Makina Loca.

"When I created my band, the idea was always to combine both sounds, the Congolese sound and the Cuban sound,'' Lemvo says, speaking by phone from his home. "Actually, I don't really consider my band a salsa band. We are somewhere in the middle -- not typically salsa or typically soukous. Both rhythms are ever-present in my music but they don't clash, they work together.''

Lemvo appears at House of Blues this Wednesday on a bill with Sam Mangwana, the Angolan-born soukous veteran whose latest album also explores the African-Latin interchange (for soukous fans, it is worth adding that Mangwana will be bringing the great guitarist Papa Noel, who is featured on the new recording). The two are the flagship artists of the new Putomayo Artists, a subsidiary of the Putomayo label, which further develops the same theme on an excellent new anthology, "Afro-Latino.''

As Lemvo explains, Congolese music has long profited from the influence of Latin artists. "When I was growing up, everybody was listening to Cuban music, and this phenomenon was not only in the Congo, but in Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, and all over West Africa. The Congolese borrowed a lot from Cuba -- people like Franco & T.P.O.K. Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau, they've done many cover songs of Orchestra Aragon, Beny More, so on and so forth.

"In the '50s and '60s, bands from the Congo were playing the Cuban music in phonetic Spanish, and then adapting those musics to our own style, and that's how what is known as the Congo rumba came to be. It's the same thing really. The only difference was the Congolese were not using piano, they were using guitar. But I have a lot of recordings of Cuban songs played by Congolese, and I also have the originals, and there is something very fascinating in listening to both versions.

"Those artists started the trend, and I'm just taking it to another level. The difference is I speak fluent Spanish, where they didn't. They sang in phonetic Spanish [without understanding what they were singing], but I write songs in Spanish, and also in Kikongo and Lingala. This is because the music I play is for not only African or Cuban or even American audiences. It's for everybody. When I'm singing in Lingala, but it's a salsa sound, the Cubans understand and the Africans understand it also. And those who do not speak either language, they understand the music. ''

By the same token, Lemvo has formed his band with musicians from a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds. "The bass player is from Holland, the conga player is from Cuba, the drummer is from Los Angeles and the guitar player, he's half Mexican, half Ecuadorian. ,'' Lemvo says. On his new CD, "Mambo Yo Yo,'' he also makes use of two of the most acclaimed figures in modern soukous, guitarists Bopol Mansiamina and Syran M'Benza of the Quatre Etoiles. Good as the regular band is, there is an obvious shift of feel when the Congolese players come in, making one wonder why Lemvo has not brought other Africans into his touring band.

He says the reason has more to do with location than choice. "The Zaireans I would like to have in my band don't live in Los Angeles, you see, they live in Paris [home of the Quatres Etoiles among others] or far, far away. There was a guy here by the name of Huit Kilos, he played a couple of cuts in my first CD, but he was playing with Tabu Ley Rochereau, so I couldn't get him in my band.

"I wish there were more Zairian guitarists here, because they know this music better than somebody else, but I'm happy with the guys that I have right now. I have always said you don't have to be from a particular place, like you don't have to be African to play African style music. Anybody who's studious and learns it well can do it. I mean, you can play anything -- look at Orquesta de la Luz, the salsa band from Japan. These guys were good! Who would think they were from Japan?''

Lemvo knows this syndrome from the other side, as well. His original job in music was as the soul vocalist with a soukous-soul band, covering hits by James Brown and Otis Redding, then wildly popular in Africa. He was in love with music, but says he was not yet able to declare it his career. "I wouldn't even dare tell my parents that I wanted to be a musician,'' he says, laughing. "Cause, 'Are you crazy?! Musician, that's not a profession, is it?' But I always had this in me. I always wanted to do this.''

He came to the United States in 1972, joining his father, and soon discovered a wider range of Latin music, even singing Mexican rancheras backed by a mariachi band. At the time he was in college, studying political science and preparing for a career in international law, but by his senior year he had been seduced by the burgeoning L.A. salsa scene. He formed his first band, recorded an album that soon attracted attention on the local scene, and has not looked back since. Now, he is ready to break out on the national scene, and is hoping to make inroads into the mainstream Latin market as well as drawing a more general "world'' audience.

"I wanted to be a lawyer, but I changed my mind and I think I made a good choice,'' he says. "This is what I really, really love. I don't think I would have loved being a lawyer more than I love being a musician.''

Back to the Archive Contents page



By Elijah Wald

There is no more moving and beautiful vocal music in the world than the bluesy, swaying Cape Verdean style known as morna, as American listeners have learned in recent years from the recordings and concerts of Cesaria Evora. For a lot of listeners, Evora is the only known morna figure, but a new record, "Criolinha'' (Tinder) shows the impressive talents of a younger mistress of the style, Fantcha, who comes to Johnny D's in Somerville on Thursday.

While she sings dazzling, upbeat songs in the coladeira style as well, Fantcha devotes most of her album to morna, and her singing is immediately reminiscent of Evora's. This is not surprising. She recorded with Evora's producer and backing musicians, and received her early training under the wing of the Cape Verdean diva.

"I met Cesaria when I was like 14 years old,'' Fantcha says, speaking with a gentle Cape Verdean accent on the pnone from her New York home. "One of the best composers, Gregorio Goncalves, he was the one who discovered my voice in a carnival group that we have in Cape Verde. He was playing all the time with Cesaria when Cesaria was more younger -- like in her 16 and 17s -- so he told me that I reminded him of Cesaria when she was my age. He said, 'I think I should you introduce you to Cesaria, because she has a lot of places that she can introduce to you to sing.' And I was like, 'Me?' Because I have been a fan of Cesaria's since I was little. I loved her voice, I loved to hear her sing on the radio.

"So I sang for the first time in one club, and it happened she was there and she liked it, and from then she decides that I had a talent and I should go out there and share my talent with the public. So, she start taking me everywhere with her: Cape Verdean Nights, piano bars and all those kind of places that she would be singing. I'm very proud of saying that she introduced me to the real world of music, which really, it was something else for me.''

Music had always been part of Fantcha's life, but she had hardly considered it as a serious career option. "My family was never doing the music like professionally,'' she says. "My two brothers played guitar for fun at home, and my mother have a beautiful voice, but she never went out and sing.''

There was no objection, though, when Fantcha decided to take up singing. "I do not really want to get into the details of this,'' she says. "But my mother was a single mother raising three kids by herself, and when I was 10 years old I was working already. OK? So it's not easy. People might think 'Oh, 14 years old, going to the bars,' but I had no other choice. But what is important to me is, I did respect myself and people did respect me for that. No matter how old I was, I know how to stand up for myself.''

Though she was a younger singer, and morna was already considered somewhat old-fashioned, Fantcha says that the music always appealed to her. "To me, morna is the most beautiful music that we have in Cape Verde. "It's the traditional Cape Verdian music, and you can see that people do enjoy it, when they go after work and relax and have a drink. So that's why I kept on, you know, and I want to preserve the tradition. I was really inspired by Cesaria, and I thought, 'You know what? I'm gonna stick with morna and coladera. ' ''

Fantcha came to the United States in 1989, on a tour with Evora. At that time, Evora was known only within the Cape Verdean community, and the tour attracted no attention outside that world, but that was no small audience. There are more Cape Verdeans in the U.S. than in Cape Verde, most of them living around the South Shore and Rhode Island.

While Evora soon returned home, Fantcha decided to stay in the U.S. She had made one record in Portugal, and was well known there and in Cape Verde, but she felt she was ready for something else. "I just wanted to change my life,'' she says. "You always hear that New York, the Capital of the World, is the place of opportunity, so like, 'Hey, let me stay here, you never know.' ''

The young singer was by no means an instant success. She lived in New York, working as a baby sitter and maid and singing whenever she got the chance. It was not until last year, though, that she landed a record contract, and the show at Johnny D's is the first formal concert of her new career. "It did took a while,'' she says, laughing gently. "It didn't happen from one day to the other. You know, it's hard when you come from another country to this country. It's a big competition in music, especially here in New York. But now things are going in the right direction.''

Evora's recent success has helped, and Fantcha definitely has the potential to capture an audience as a younger, more energetic version of the morna diva, who has sometimes left Western audiences nonplussed with her low-key live shows. "She's the best singer, and with the age also, she doesn't really need to really make a show for people to look up to her,'' Fantcha says. "I do a little more. You know, I cannot be singing coladeira and just stay put.''

Fantcha adds that, grateful as she is for Evora's help, she has her own approach and vision. "You always have to have someone to inspire you and get you out there,'' she says. "But then you have to be able to be yourself. We sing the same kind of music, and I respect Cesaria until the last day of her breath or mine, but I don't want to be in Cesaria's shadow. I want to be me. I'm only 33 years old, I have long ahead time to go, so I am just creating myself. I want to be Fantcha. ''

Back to the Archive Contents page


Regis Gisavo

By Elijah Wald

The first few notes of Regis Gizavo's debut album sound like a burst of Louisiana zydeco. Then he settles into the main rhythm, and suddenly we are almost half-way around the world, on the southwest coast of Madagascar. The music rocks, swirls and soars, mixing the lightness of the Malagasy folk tradition with a solid dance beat. The surprise comes when one checks the album credits and finds that the full band sound is being created by just two people, Gizavo on accordion and vocals backed by percussionist David Mirandon.

"After our concerts, people always come up and ask "How do you do it?" Gizavo says, speaking in French from his Paris apartment. "Because it sounds like we have four people on the stage. And we can't explain it, because we just play -- we don't think about it. It just hit us like this.''

Gizavo, who appears at Johnny D's in Somerville this Thursday (617-776-2004), is part of a wave of Malagasy musicians who have swept into the consciousness of European and American listeners in the last few years. Madagascar has a unique cultural mix due to its original settlement by Indonesians, whose music blended with the rhythms of continental Africans. Gisavo played in perhaps the finest Malagasy roots band on record, Jihe, led by the guitar virtuoso D'Gary. Since moving to France, he has also played with French, Corsican, and West African groups, and has adopted influences from each while retaining his roots. "I blend a bit of everything into my style,'' he says. "But it is always Malagasy.''

Gizavo says that in Madagascar the accordion is considered a traditional instrument, with a history stretching back over 100 years. "People played in their villages and they adapted the instrument to their culture,'' he says. "So the instrument profoundly changed its sound, its style of playing. It became very rhythmic, and melodic at the same time. It's wild, because you find it in every part of Madagascar, and it changes in every region. The accordionists in the south, for example, played very rhythmically, and in the high plateau, in Tana [the capital, Tananarive], it was a bit melancholic. I traveled a lot, all over Madagascar, and I have managed to mix all of that together.''

Gizavo was born into a family of accordionists. "I started when I was six,'' he says. "My father played, and I have two sisters and two brothers who play accordion. I started performing at school events, when I was around twelve. I accompanied the students in my class, competing for prizes. I enjoyed that, for me it was like a game. Then, when I was eighteen, I began playing in orchestras for soirees in my area, in the south of Madagascar. We played tangos and waltzes, because there were French people there, and then we played a Malagasy repertory, standards. Anything that would make the people dance.''

Though he started out on a small, diatonic button accordion, which could only play in a couple of keys, Gisavo soon graduated to the chromatic button instrument favored by French musette players, which is among the most versatile members of the accordion family. Like Texas-Mexican players, though, he ignored the bass buttons on the left side of the instrument, sticking to the right-hand melody buttons. It was only after coming to France that he developed his present style.

"In Madagascar, I always played with other people,'' he says. "I had a guitarist, a bassist, so I only played with the right hand. Then, when I arrived in Paris, I had the problem that all the good musicians were playing with groups that were known, and I had just arrived, so they were not available to me. So I had to learn to play with my left hand, and finally I learned to play it like another instrument. I got it to have the sound of a bass, and on the right hand I accompany myself, I play like a chorus, and in the middle I sing. It is very difficult, but I think it is very good.''

Indeed, some of the playing on his debut album, "Mikea'' (Shanachie) is little short of amazing. The solo instrumental "Mahavatse,'' for example, has a rich tone, imaginative variation, and infectious rhythm that transcends any stereotypes about the limits of his chosen instrument. The other songs, with drums and vocals, are consistently varied and exciting, and Gisavo's voice has a warmth that communicates over the language barrier.

"The words are about real life,'' he says. "About the things that are happening now, the problems in my country, how the people survive there, and at the same time the beauty of the country. There is a great deal of hope in my lyrics, hope for the Malagasy people, despite the poverty and problems we have.''

Now, Gisavo is looking forward to his American debut, and beginning work on his second album, which will mix duet tracks with pieces using more musicians. He is also hoping to bring his music back home. "I haven't yet played this in Madagascar,'' he says. "I simply haven't had the time, because things are happening very fast here in Europe. But I hope to go soon to play this for them. I am interested to see how they react, because it's something completely new.''

Back to the Archive Contents page

Floxy Bee

By Elijah Wald

The Nigerian singer Floxy Bee calls her music hikosso, a fusion of highlife, makossa and soukous. On her new album, “Hikossoul,” she adds a solid jolt of r&b and afro-beat as well, but the first ingredient has remained strongest: the upbeat, cheerful surge of Nigerian highlife is everywhere in her work. Which makes her a very welcome addition to the U.S. African scene, where West Africa’s happiest pop sound has been a rarity.

Floxy Bee, who will be playing a New Year’s Eve show in Boston, is something of a highlife innovator, not just because of her blend of music but simply because she is a woman. “In Africa, when I tell the men that what I do is highlife, they’re like ‘What do you mean? No woman sings highlife music!’” she says, laughing over the phone from her New York home. “It’s like the men’s business, and I don’t know why is that. I think I’m the only lady actually promoting highlife music so far.

“But what can I do? I love highlife music, and that’s why I decided to follow in the footsteps of the late Rex Lawson, Nico Mbarga, these great people. I enjoy it, and I think it allows you to be free, and it’s expressive, especially if you understand the words. That’s why I am trying to promote highlife, and singing more in English.”

Floxy Bee has been around music all her life. “My grandfather used to play the drums for the idol worship,” she says. “Like when they go to the shango festival or whatever, he goes and he beats the drums for them and he sings also, and that’s where I think I got it from. And my brothers and sisters, some of them play conga or sing -- but they mostly sing in church.”

Church is where Floxy Bee got her start as well, but not singing what most Americans would expect to hear in that venue. “I go to the church of Cherubim and Seraphim,” she explains. “It’s an African church, based here and also in Africa. I would call it the authentic African church, because it’s a church where they beat the drum and we dance, and we just let go of our problems and worship God.”

Floxy Bee moved to the United States five years ago, though she still regularly tours Nigeria and the video for her recent single “Eko,” the most requested video on the local African GAIN-TV network (Saturday 7 p.m. on UHF 19 and Boston cable A26, Sunday, 4 p.m. on Cambridge cable 3), was shot in Lagos. It is a fine introduction to her work, a bright, infectious song performed to the accompaniment of a half-dozen sexily gyrating dancers. She explains that the song, one of only two on the new album which are not sung in English, is a comic piece about the difficulties of life in Lagos.

In her shows, Floxy Bee says, she sings in all three main Nigerian languages -- Ibo, Yoruba and Hausa -- as well as English and Pidgin. Asked which is her original tongue, she ducks the question: “I would say, ‘Everything.’ Because right now it’s like a kind of controversy,” she says. “People are worried about where am I from, is it from the Ibo speaking part of Nigeria, is it from the Yoruba. I just say to them that I’m an entertainer and I try to please everybody.”

In both her music and her conversation, Floxy Bee tries to strike a balance, cheerful and eager to please, but also quite open about her own opinions. Her music is fun, but also has a message. “I try to preach love for the family,” she says, “and liberation for the African woman.”

Like most African singers, and in contrast to most American pop stars, she spends little time singing about romantic matters, and she adds that, even when she does sing about love, it is quite different. “The way we think of love is not like you meet somebody and then you just fall head over heals and the next minute something goes wrong and everybody separates,” she says. “In African culture, you don’t just get married to the woman or the man, you marry the whole family. Even if the husband says ‘Go,’ the family will say, ‘No, she’s not going anywhere. She stays here. We want her.’ It’s different, but everything has it’s advantages and disadvantages. It depends on you, how you want to take control of your life.”

Floxy Bee sounds as if she has sorted these matters out to her satisfaction. Or maybe it is the music itself that carries her through: “Highlife tells you about your life, and your future,” she says. “It’s a song I recommend as a therapy, for anybody in an emotional problem, love affair problem, whatever problem you have. If you’re sad and you listen to a very good highlife song, it kind of puts your mind to rest and you know there’s hope for tomorrow.”

Back to the Archive Contents page


Richard Bona

By Elijah Wald

At 32, bassist Richard Bona has worked with numerous major jazz figures, spent two years as Harry Belafonte’s music director, and now has released a solo album, “Scenes from My Life” (Columbia), that is attracting wide attention. The surprising thing is that, while Bona was brought to Columbia by Branford Marsalis, the CD reflects not his jazz career, but his roots in his native Cameroon. The songs are in Douala and Banwele, and the music reaches back to his childhood, with lilting vocals and strong dance rhythms.

“I started out playing balafon” (a West African xylophone), Bona says, on the phone from a tour stop. “And I grew up playing in church. Then my father got a job in the city, and everybody was playing electric, no one was playing traditional instruments, so I had to learn guitar. And I started playing in the bars, where people drink and dance.

“There was a French man that came to Douala, trying to start a jazz club, and someone sent him to me. He came to where I was playing -- we used to play from 9 p.m. to six o’clock in the morning, every day, and I used to get paid like $1 a night -- and this guy came and asked if I could put together a band and play some jazz music.

“I said, ’What’s jazz music?’ I was 15 years old; I didn’t know anything about it. But I told him, ’How much money you going to pay?’ And he told me like 20 times what the other guy was playing. So I told him, ‘I don’t care what kind of music is that. Just let me listen to that music and I’ll play it.’”

The French man took Bona to his house, and the first record he put on was a Jaco Pastorius album. “I listened to the bass, and I thought, ’Oh my God, what is that?” Bona says. He was instantly hooked, switched to bass and formed a jazz group, playing the fusion style of Pastorius, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, and Miles Davis.

Soon, however, Bona became frustrated. “It was hard to find some other musicians to share this music,” he says. “Because most of the musicians in Cameroon play in the bars to make people dance. So after a few years I moved to France.”

A bit surprisingly for a young, self-taught musician, Bona found almost immediate acceptance. “I’ve always been lucky, my entire career,” he says. “Wherever I went, people always embraced me, they were nice to me.”

Bona had only been in Paris for a few years when Joe Zawinul was passing through town and called him. “He’d heard me on a tape, and he called the guy who did the music and asked him, ’Who’s the bass player?’ He gave him my number and he called me, ’Hey, man, I’m in Paris, will you come and do a jam session with me?’ I thought it was someone trying to make a joke, and I hung up. And he called me again, and I looked in the paper and saw that he was playing that night.”

Bona accompanied Zawinul that night, with no rehearsal, and two years later moved to New York to join the keyboardist’s group. From there, he went with Belafonte, first as bassist and then as music director, staying for two years.

Then, Bona decided it was time to strike out on his own. Considering his background in jazz, his choice to make a vocal-driven, traditionally-based album seems surprising, but he says it was completely natural. “Look,” he says. “I have so much background in me musically. My grandfather was a musician, his father was a musician, my mother is a musician. I have so much stories to tell, and if I don’t tell these stories, who is going to tell them? I mean, I love jazz, I will always play jazz. But this is my first album, and I wanted to start where I started and tell people where I’m from.”

Though the jazz influences are obvious, it is Bona’s warm vocals and varied melodic sense that dominate his album. “Music comes from the way people speak,” he says. “And in Cameroon we have 277 dialects, so that makes the music so diverse, we have so much popular music there. We have mangambe, bikutsi, we have makossa, asiko, ambaside, and so much more.”

Bona also feels that he has many stories to tell. “There are so many things happening around us,” he says. “And, to tell you the truth, most of the music in America, people don’t tell a story anymore. We [Africans] are storytellers; we must be, because people are watching us and listening to us. When Miles Davis used to grab his trumpet and play, you could hear stories, and, for me, if I cannot hear that I am not interested. In my life, I see things that touch me so much, so I say, ’How can I transcribe this story into music?’”

Back to the Archive Contents page

Waldemar Bastos

By Elijah Wald

The quiet beauty of Waldemar Bastos’ music gives little hint of the forces behind it. His voice flows gently over his acoustic guitar, murmurring a wordless chant. But then comes the lyric, in Portuguese: “Why so much pain, why so much hatred?” The song is called “Sofrimento,” or “Suffering,” and leads off his debut American release, “Preta Luz,” on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.

Bastos is widely considered “the voice of Angola,” despite the fact that he has spent most of the last two decades in exile and his recordings are banned in that country. “There's a selective censorship going on in relation to my music,” he explains, speaking in Portuguese through a translator. “Not because it's political; it's because it speaks of simple things, and simple things are love, love instead of war. And love irritates everything that's connected to warfare.”

Almost from the day of independence from Portugal, in 1975, Angola has been wracked by civil war. The two sides, the leftist government and rightist guerrillas, were caught up in Cold War geopolitics, with the superpowers urging on and escalating an already tough situation. Rather than taking sides, Bastos has remained a non-sectarian spokesmen for an end to the killing.

As he explains, he was already running into trouble under the Portuguese, who sent him to prison. “It was more my attitude than my music,” he says. “I was a student at that time, and I didn’t agree with modern slavery.”

Independence brought further disappointment. “One was hoping for freedom, but what actually happened was that confrontation started between brothers,” he says. “Angola is a country that is composed of various ethnicities, and when the Portuguese left, the institution that was capable of imposing itself through force left. Now these different groups have to find a common ground, and it's sad that to find that common ground they have to shed much blood and cause much suffering. It is sad that they cannot find a way to live together in harmony.”

Both sides in the Angolan conflict have tried to claim Bastos’ music, but he has adamantly resisted all efforts to make him represent one or another faction. “I'm not a politician,” he explains. “I'm a singer who sings and wants justice, which is my obligation because I have talent which God gave me and I can't just try to gain the economic benefits of it.”

Bastos’ parents were health workers, and he gives them much of the credit for his current views. “I think my social consciousness has to do with the education that I received,” he says. “I had to deal on a daily basis with situations of social injustice, many of with are compounded by sickness. I saw that happening with my parents; I went along with them and I saw the problems of my people.”

Bastos’ father played various keyboard instruments, and Bastos started out at age seven, playing his father’s accordion. He showed unusual talent, so when Christmas came he was offered the choice of a bicycle or music lessons. To everyone’s surprise, he chose music, and shortly he was playing guitar and working with local bands.

“I practically somersaulted over adolescence going from child to adult,” he says. “In the beginning, I used to play dance music. I only started composing my own music and singing my own music when I was about 18, because I didn't put much faith in my own compositions. Then people, when they heard me, they gave me incentive and made me go on.”
While his current music can recall the morna style of Cesaria Evora, Portuguese fados, or the Brazilian MPB songwriters, Bastos says that its basis is still Angolan, and retains the lessons he learned in his youth. “I believe that, as Africa has rhythm that is danceable, this kind of music gets into your ears much quicker. It goes into your ears and your pores and your sweat.”

Bastos toured widely in the East Bloc during the 1970s, but in 1982 he was forced to leave, only returning briefly in 1992, when there was a hiatus in the war. Seeking a place that would feel somewhat familiar, he first went to Brazil. There, he was hailed by musicians and made an album with the MPB star Chico Buarque, but wider success eluded him.

“Brazil at that time was very closed to the publication of other types of music,” he says. “Despite saying that we are brothers and everything, on the part of the media, the radio, there were large barriers to the publishing or broadcasting of this kind of music. So I had to go to Europe, where it seemed to be more open. Then in Portugal it wasn't that great, so I went to France. For me to be able to make serious music, I had to use ways and byways.”

Lately, Bastos has been enjoying heightened success abroad, and his tapes are bootlegged and smuggled into homes all over Angola. His current quintet includes musicians from Mozambique and Guinea, but he says that, whoever plays with him, his music has remained true to its source.

“The spinal cord and the soul of my music is Angolan,” he says. “I left with my personality formed already, and I'm always on the same wave length as there. But I can play with musicians from other continents as well. A musician, when he's a musician, understands the language and I'm a composer and a guitarist too so I can pass on my music to the other elements of the band. Then they have their own characteristics and their own creativity, and things go very well. I could say that my music is a synthesis of a man who was born in Africa, but sings of the world without being closed off by clichés that you have to be ‘African.’ I sing open to the world.”

Indeed, one of the most impressive things about Bastos’ music is the way it communicates despite linguistic and cultural barriers. The words of his songs are obviously very important to him, but he says that he feels little difference in playing for foreign audiences.

“They do not understand Portuguese, but they do understand the language of feelings,” he says. “And sometimes what's most important is for people to receive that language of the sentiment, of the feelings, more so than the actual words themselves.”

Back to the Archive Contents page


Ivo Pires

By Elijah Wald

On your left, as you walk into Boston String Instruments on Huntington Avenue, there is a viola da gamba in a glass case. It looks like a renaissance antique, with lush curves and fine filigree on the sides. Ivo Pires made it for fun, without ever having touched a viola da gamba, or even seen one in a museum. He just saw a few pictures, and thought it would be nice to make something like that. Now, he is making them for classical musicians.

There is something magical about Pires’s talent, both as an intrument maker and a musician. He is, on the one hand, the man who repairs stringed instruments for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, members of the Boston Symphony, and professors at New England Conservatory. On the other, he is the most in-demand violinist and bandleader on the Cape Verdean party and wedding circuit, and the best-known artist at So Sabi, the Cape Verdean festival being held this Saturday at the Boston Center for the Arts. And he never took a lesson in his life.

"We have this in our blood," says Roosevelt Pires, Ivo’s son and partner. "There’s a lot of people out there go to school for four, five years to learn maybe a quarter of the things that we know. But us, it’s into our system. It’s not like we feel like we’re gonna try this; we don’t try, we do it, because it’s in us. When we are doing this work, it’s like every day of your life you’re reading a new page of you."

Both of the Pireses were born in Cape Verde, and still have strong Creole accents. As is not unusual in the U.S.-based community (which is overwhelmingly centered in New England, and is actually a larger population than live on the home islands), each generation of Pires men have tended to work here, but had their families back in "the old country." Ivo’s grandfather came over at age 14, returned to marry at 20, came back to California to work on the railroads, and finally went back to the islands at age 84.

Ivo was born 57 years ago in the village of Fraguesia Nossa Senhora do Monte, Chao de Sousa, on the island of Brava, and grew up in his grandmother’s house. He always loved music, and when he was eight years old an older cousin received a Martin ukelele as a present from a godfather in the U.S. Pires borrowed the instrument, and began to teach himself to play.

"I want to try to kept the instrument for myself," he says, laughing. "Which my family says, ‘No, it belong to your cousin.’ So I tell my aunt, ‘If you can leave me with the instrument for one more night so at least I can copy it?’"

Pires copied the ukelele, even breaking his grandfather’s mirror and putting a piece inside the instrument so he could see the top bracing. "I take wood from the house, and my grandfather has tools at home, and I build one ukulele exact same size. Then when I turn to nine years old I expand it, make much bigger instrument than the one I copy. Meantime, I also make Portuguese guitar, which is 12-string instrument."

In the mornings, on his way to school, Pires would see musicians wandering home from their dance gigs, serenading people on the street. "I cannot go close to them because some was drinking and things like that," he remembers. "But I look at the instruments and I got the note pad in the pocket. When I get to school, instead of pay attention what the teacher saying, I’m design the instrument what I saw, and I come home and I start making instruments continuously."

Soon the local musicians began to take notice. "People are bringing the broken instruments -- since I can make instrument, they say, I can repair it just as well. So, that’s what gave me the foundation, because I fix all those instruments: some from Italy, from Germany, from the United States, some needed top, some needed backs, some need sides. So I see exactly how the professionals, the masters used to do and I copy from them. But then I do my own research, I was experimenter. Because I’m always like that since I was kid. And when I’m 10, 11 years old I was already a professional maker and repair for everyone."

Meanwhile, Pires had begun playing at dances and family events all over his home island. After ukelele, he taught himself guitar, Portuguese guitar, and violin -- "whatever instrument I saw, I try to play them all." He played the broad repertoire of the era: Cape Verdean mornas (the style Cesaria Evora sings), polkas, mazurkas, waltzes and foxtrots. By the time he came to the United States, in 1967, his reputation had preceded him.

"They have movies even, because a lot of peoples from here goes to old country and take the movies at those weddings and christenings," he says. "So I start playing the day I got here. And until today I never stop one week -- I play it straight, straight, straight."

Almost as quickly, he had established himself as an instrument repair man: "I just go to Carl Fischer [one of Boston’s premier music stores], and I was talk to the man," he remembers, enjoying the story. "I was just come from the old country, and he was think, ‘I don’t know this guy. . .’ So, I see him like this, I say, ‘You have any instruments? Before we fill in the paper, can I show you what I can do?’ He jump up, he say, ‘Oh yeah!’ -- Because the time when I got here there was not too much repair men, there used to be one man from Jamaica Plain, I think, he was 85 years old. So they really need people to work.

"We go to the fifth floor and I see the instruments. One have a crack in the top, so I take the top off right in front of him -- I tell him, ‘Just show me where’s the tools, where the glue pot is’ -- I make the glue and glue the instrument. Another one, the neck was twisted, so I straighten the neck, get the fingerboard, make it all nice ready to glue on. And he says ‘You know something? You don’t even need to fill in the paper right now, we fill in the paper after 5 o’clock.’"

Pires spent several years at Carl Fischer, then moved over to Boston String Instruments. It was the perfect location, behind Symphony Hall and across the street from the Conservatory, and he has been there 31 years. When owner Melvin Peabody died last May, Pires bought the business. Over the years, he has worked on some of the world’s finest instruments, and has continued to learn by doing. He says that he has read almost nothing, has never been to a museum of vintage instruments, and could not even pick up much at conventions, because in the early years his English was not good enough. He just, somehow, always knew what to do.

Roosevelt came to join his father 22 years ago. He was 14, and had already set out on the same path, making little instruments from wood and tin cans. "When I came, I didn’t recognize my father," Roosevelt says. "Because when he came to this country I was only three years old. But I knew he’s expert making and repairing, and I had that in my blood."

Roosevelt went to Cathedral High School, and every afternoon he would run over to the store. "I just couldn’t wait to get out of school, because my life was here," he says, looking around the back room where he is rehairing an $80,000 violin bow. "I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to see what’s going on, to open up instruments and see what they look like."

Neither of the Pireses seem to have any interests to speak of outside of music, nor does this give them a second thought. Indeed, Roosevelt sounds mildly critical of the breadth of the American educational system. He has a 14-year-old daughter who shows signs of carrying on the intrument-working tradition, but she is not as fixated as he or Ivo was at the same age. "Here, they have so much to develop. They [Americans] have too many things, and we focus with one thing and try to make it happen. So they are kind of a little slow compared to us."

Roosevelt is doing his part to extend the tradition, teaching workshops for Cape Verdean teenagers at the Boston Center for the Arts, but frankly has little time for anything but work. This afternoon, he has three bows to rehair, and will only break briefly for lunch. As for his father, Ivo regularly works late into the night, and when he is not in the shop he is usually out playing a dance party. He has performed every single weekend since coming to this country, and is already booked into 2001. He says he would be playing even more nights if he did not have such a backlog of repair and instrument orders. He has released several CDs over the last few years (all of them almost instantly sold out) and has played the Lowell and Smithsonian folk festivals, but virtually all his work is in Brockton, New Bedford, or other large Cape Verdean communities, where he mixes his old-time repertoire with modern coladera, cumbia, salsa and merengue.

"I work all my life," he says. "I start at eight, I never stop to this day. And if the health is OK, I think if I last to 80, 90 years old, I’m still gonna try to do the same thing."

The interview is over, and the Pireses head out to the front of the shop. A young woman is there waiting, with her violin bow in her hand. She has a concert tonight, and it needs to be rehaired; is there any way they can fit her in? Roosevelt looks at the bow and smiles resignedly. "Oh well, there goes lunch."

Back to the Archive Contents page


Agusto Cego

By Elijah Wald

Agusto Cego is sitting at a table in the Boston Globe cafeteria. He seems a bit shy, but relaxed and pleasant, and happy to talk about his life and work. It is clear, though, that he is more used to communicating musically, which is not surprising when one considers that he is a virtuoso on a half-dozen instruments, and is now making his debut as one of the most promising singers in Cape Verdean music.

To most Americans, say "Cape Verdean music" and the Pavlovian response is "Cesaria Evora." In New England, especially, this is a bit bizarre. While Evora has become a superstar in the world music field (she headlines over Cassandra Wilson at the FleetBoston Pavilion on June 25), New Englanders should be aware of plenty of other Cape Verdean players, since there are more Cape Verdeans here than in Cape Verde, and they have been here for some two hundred years.

And yet, when Agusto (his performing name translates as "Blind Agusto") appears at Berklee Performance Center tomorrow, he will be the first Cape Verdean performer besides Evora to headline a major mainstream location in New England. That he is appearing there at all is thanks to his record producers, the Brockton-based Mendes Brothers: "He’s special, his talent," explains Ramiro Mendes, who also serves as translator. "Not that the other artists we’ve worked with didn’t have talent, but we figured that if we were gonna launch him in this country, the first time he’s here, we should give him the five-star treatment."

Judging by "Nha Fidjo," the one available track from the upcoming album, the Mendeses have made a good choice. Agusto is a warmly swinging singer; if his voice does not have Evora’s depth (and whose does?), he is more imaginative in his phrasing and rhythm, and has the same gentle intimacy and old-time, acoustic feel. "I try to defend my culture," he explains. "The Cape Verdean culture, and first of all the culture of Fogo [his home island]. And to bring this music to other nations, all around the world."

The new disc is Agusto’s vocal debut, and features his own compositions, lilting, bluesy songs about love, longing, and the common Cape Verdean theme of the homesickness and trials of immigration. The islands are far from fertile, and much of the population must go abroad to earn a living. The lyric of "Nha Fidjo," for example, has a mother advising her child: "Watch what you do in life, because I’ve spent three years in Angola, 18 years in Sao Tome, and also in Portugal -- I spent all those years there, and all I have to give you is my advice."

While not yet known as a singer, Agusto is a highly respected instrumentalist. He visited the U.S. once before, brought by the Smithsonian Institution to represent the beauties of traditional Cape Verdean playing, and performs professionally on saxophone, flute, 6 and 10-string guitars, piano, harmonica, clarinet, and cavaquinho (a sort of ukelele), though his main instrument is the violin.

"I play two types of violin," he explains. "The regular one, and another that is tuned with two E strings an octave apart and two A strings. I invented this because I used to listen to a lot of old recordings from Portugal, with arrangements that had two players playing in octaves, and I said to myself, ‘How can I play this?’ I loved that sound, and the only way that I could do it was to create my own tuning."

Agusto, who is 39, comes from a family of musicians, and explains that his uncle Rabolo was so famous that there is now a whole style of music called rabolo. "I started playing when I was small," he says. "I started out making my own instruments with bamboo and corn stalks, anything that would make a sound. Then my first real instrument was a ukelele I bought when I was nine years old."

By that time, he had gone blind in his left eye and was beginning to lose the sight in his right. By fourteen, he was completely blind, but it does not seemed to have slowed him down. He explains that there is a tradition of blind musicians in Cape Verde, as in much of the world, and they are considered particularly gifted. In addition, he has his own business repairing radios and selling food and other daily goods out of his home. "In Cape Verde now, it’s not possible to make a living just as a musician," he explains. "You have to have something else that you do as well."

This also explains why Agusto has done much of his playing abroad. While he has spent most of his life playing "popular dances" on Fogo, in recent years he has been touring from Portugal to Scandinavia. Now, he hopes that the new album will bring him to an still wider audience. Mendes, whose own band is a major seller throughout Africa, explains that the potential market is huge.

"We’re gonna do two mixes," he says. "One smoother, for the Western world, and then we’re gonna mix one a little harder for the African world. For the West we do it lighter, you mix the drums a little smoother, nice, radio-friendly, a Sunday afternoon type of sound. For the Africans, we need more of a dance beat; Cape Verdean music is very hot throughout the whole continent, especially the Francophone and Lusophone countries, and also among the African communities in Europe. You have to target all those markets, and its very difficult to kill the two birds with one stone."

It is the Mendeses’ combination of commercial savvy and musical sensitivity that made Agusto decide to record his solo debut in Brockton rather than in Cape Verde, Lisbon, or Paris. "I came here because Ramiro understands my music," he says. "He knows my style, we’re from the same land, and he’s a person that I trust, and who can take me where I need to be. I hope this record will open up a world-wide market for me, and give me a little more knowledge about this musical journey."

Back to the Archive Contents page