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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,
"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."
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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
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."
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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
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."
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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
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
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
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
“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.”
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.
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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.''
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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
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
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. ''
to the Archive Contents page
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
"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
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
to the Archive Contents page
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
“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.”
to the Archive Contents page
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?’”
to the Archive Contents page
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
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
“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
“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.”
to the Archive Contents page
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 Piress 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
"We have this in our blood," says Roosevelt Pires, Ivos
son and partner. "Theres 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, its into our system. Its not like
we feel like were gonna try this; we dont try, we do
it, because its in us. When we are doing this work, its
like every day of your life youre 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." Ivos 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 grandmothers 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
Pires copied the ukelele, even breaking his grandfathers
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, Im 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, thats 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 Im always like that
since I was kid. And when Im 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 Bostons
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 dont 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 wheres 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 dont even need to fill in the
paper right now, we fill in the paper after 5 oclock."
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 worlds
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 didnt recognize
my father," Roosevelt says. "Because when he came to this
country I was only three years old. But I knew hes 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 couldnt 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 didnt want to miss anything. I wanted to see whats
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
"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, Im still gonna try to do the same
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."
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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
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: "Hes special, his talent," explains
Ramiro Mendes, who also serves as translator. "Not that the
other artists weve worked with didnt have talent, but
we figured that if we were gonna launch him in this country, the
first time hes 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 Evoras
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 new disc is Agustos 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 Ive 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, its
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.
"Were gonna do two mixes," he says. "One smoother,
for the Western world, and then were 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, were from the same land, and hes 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."
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