First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri July 6, 2007, 12:00 AM CDT
Ask any but the most ardent world beat fans about music from Cape Verde, and most of them likely will draw a blank. Those who can mention a performer invariably will evoke the name of Cesaria Evora, the barefoot matriarch and originator of Morna — a kind of soulful, Afro-Fado music. Because Evora has been in poor health in recent years — and consequently has cut back on her touring schedule — there has been a resurgence of young female singers from Cape Verde, all of whom are attempting to make a name for themselves on the world stage. The most notable of these is a stunning vocalist named Lura whose most recent album Di Korpa Ku Alma was a revelation to many critics. Despite the acclaim that Lura and other female artists from the former Portugese colony have received, they have made little effect outside of the fringes of music’s mainstream. Tcheka, a young man from Santiago, Cape Verde who wrote two of the songs on Lura’s In Love, hopes not only to change this but also to prove with the release of his excellent, first effort Nu Monda that women’s voices are not the only ones emanating from the Cape Verde-ian islands that are worth hearing.
Cape Verde, named after Cape Vert in nearby Senegal, is a collection of 10 islands situated midway between Portugal, Brazil, and Angola. Santiago is considered to be the most African of these islands, and it reflects a culture that is neither European nor African but rather is influenced by both. While most of the artists from Cape Verde traditionally have approximated the musical styles of their colonial rulers by incorporating Portugese Fado and Brazilian modinha into their compositions, Tcheka’s primary influences are much more ancient, residing closer to his African roots. Tcheka’s rhythms and melodies are inspired by batuque, a traditional style of song that typically is performed by women after they return home from working in the fields. Originally, it was developed as a way of getting around the ban on drums that was imposed by the Church and the Portuguese colonial authorities. The women made piles of loincloths into percussive instruments by rolling them up and holding them between their legs. Batuque is still popular in Santiago today, but the musicians now use plastic bags that have been tacked and folded in ways that replicate the unusual rhythmic sounds that initially had been made by striking folded cloth.
A professional musician since boyhood, Tcheka heard these rhythms and began to experiment with transposing the batuque style for guitar. The results as evidenced on Nu Monda are compelling, and they invite the listener into a world that is quite unlike anything else being recorded and performed today. Music can be interesting culturally and still not be any fun to hear, but Tcheka’s work is not of the sort that has been made for academics, ethno-musicologists, or anyone else who is drawn to it solely as a cultural or anthropological expression of a post-colonial culture. Nu Monda is fun, uplifting, and engaging, and it never sounds for a moment like a recording that ought to be housed in the Library of Congress or a museum.
The shocking diversity of musical forms that have flourished in their places of origin — existing under the radar of popular culture and outside of the gaze of most world music fans, only to come to light in recent years — is the most exciting area of exploration that currently is available. In today’s environment, there is no other genre of music that is doing more for the creative health of the industry than these recordings by young musicians who are composing new music based upon traditional styles from Third-World cultures. The phenomenal success of the Buena Vista Social Club some years back surely has encouraged record labels to search for artists who are playing contemporary-sounding, traditional music — specifically those who are creating songs in an Afro-Latin style.
One doesn’t need to have a background in world music in order to enjoy Nu Monda, nor is it necessary to be familiar with batuque in its original form to enjoy the songs Tcheka sings and plays. Primarily driven by his voice and a subtle yet powerful acoustic guitar accompaniment, the music is challenging, complex, and original, and it should appeal to a wide range of music fans. Lovers of African highlife will appreciate the simple yet intricate percussion that lays the foundation for Tcheka’s dancing guitar lines and amazing vocal inflections. Followers of Fado music will hear some of the longing and yearning in Tcheka’s voice as he unearths and elevates the sort of forgotten and unarticulated sorrow that has come to characterize the genre.
It can be difficult, at times, to describe how music sounds, and one always resorts to comparing it with something that is more familiar. For example, there are moments in Tcheka’s guitar playing that suggest the influence of Gilberto Gil, but although the men share certain melodic sensibilities, there also is a rhythmic intensity that is reminiscent of John McLaughlin’s Shakti. Sometimes musical phrases and ideas fly thick and fast; at other times, a single note lingers and insinuates itself deep into the listener’s consciousness. Singing in Portugese and Creole, Tcheka’s voice is alternately muscular and ethereal. Similarly, Cuban influences can be heard in his vocal style, ones that, perhaps, trace back to the African Griot tradition that recently has been reflected in the work of the great contemporary Malian singers Salif Keita and the late Ali Farka Toure. The vocal harmonies throughout Nu Monda also are stunningly beautiful. They evoke associations with artists as diverse as David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash (at their most assured) and the I Threes, Bob Marley’s longtime backing accompanists (at their warmest and richest). While his music is nothing like Marley’s, Tcheka shares the same sense of charisma and ebullience that the young Jamaican exuded before he took the world by storm.
In the end, none of these comparisons are accurate or satisfying, nor do they do justice to explaining Tcheka’s work. Like the best world music, Nu Monda sounds ancient and traditional at one moment, and it feels contemporary and futuristic the next. Nevertheless, this is still a vague description. The fact is that, in real terms, there is no evidence in his music of any influence from anywhere in the English-speaking world. Consequently, critical analysis is set adrift, instigating a search for familiar touchstones. There is no rock influence; there are no traces of soul, nor hip-hop, nor reggae — all common comparisons employed by musicologists to provide context to different forms of black music. Tcheka has his own unique set of influences, all of which are difficult to pinpoint. None of this detracts from Nu Monda’s charm. Its contents effortlessly percolate, dance, and groove in the orbit that plays among the various styles of Latin and West African music. It requires no passport for entry into its seductive realm.
Nu Monda is a real treat, and Tcheka is an exciting new performer, one who is overflowing with talent and musical ideas. He is quite unlike any other artist who is recording in the world today. He deserves to be a star, and if there is any justice left in the world, he’ll surely become one.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box