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Music – Tcheka, batuque revisited

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World music has become, during the years, a label used for artists with sometimes little in common, except that they don’t belong to mainstream western music genres. It might seem strange that this word fits (as it does) an artist that is actually part of a mainstream tradition – barely known by Westerners.

Tcheka (whose real name is Manuel Lopes Andrade), 40, is from Ribeira da Barca, a small coastal town on the island of Santiago, Cape Verde. Santiago was for around 400 years a Portuguese colony. Portuguese is the national language and has left many traces in the local Creole. The same can be said – to some extent – for local culture. Obviously, this isn’t a mere colonial legacy. Every culture is the result of many elements that, in mixing, create something peculiar and unique. There might not be a better example than Tcheka’s Dor de mar (2011), his fourth solo album.

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This music reveals the deepest meaning of the word ‘Creole’ in the age of globalization. Tcheka’s art has a hybrid nature. It is rooted in the Cape Verdean past, from slavery (the islands were deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade), to colonialism, and eventually to freedom. Nevertheless, at the same time, this singer’s music is fully part of the present age, characterised by mobility and cross-cultural ties. Maybe this is why the 12-track album sometimes recalls Mediterranean rhythms more than West African ones. Indeed, there is something that Cape Verdeans have in common with those living on the coasts of Southern Europe, northern Africa, and Western Asia. It is the sea itself, with the feelings it conveys.

Dor de mar actually means ‘pain of the sea’, but one must not simply think of a fado-like music and of nostalgic atmospheres. The themes Tcheka deals with are various: some songs, as in previous albums, describe the daily life of ordinary Cape Verdeans – particularly from the island of Santiago – which the singer knows well – Pexera Porto, detailing the hard life of fishermen, is one. Primeru Djobi and Storia Estrada are about hard manual labour. On the other hand, the title track reflects the artist’s deep concern for environmental themes. Other lyrics are centred on friendship (Antuneku), love, loss (Madalena, Tchoro na morte), and beauty (Forti Bu Dan Cu Stango). This is the only song Tcheka didn’t write, it was written in the US several decades ago by his fellow countryman Norberto Tavares. Melancholy, indeed, appears here and there in the twelve tracks (for instance in the Faka na Prega finale) but it is only one of the feelings conveyed by this album. Even the sense of isolation of Cape Verde from the African mainland takes on many different forms, floating between dreams and meditation.

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The album doesn’t lack dance tracks, such as in Madalena (with samba-like rhythms) or Forti Bu Dan Cu Stango. This is all but unexpected since the musical genre which most influences Tcheka is Cape Verdean batuque: in the past this music went along with dances. Like many young local artists, Tcheka has a particular relationship with it: “The batuque I play – he said in 2004, speaking about Argui!, his first solo album – is a stylized batuque.” Shortly after his debut he also said that he did not agree being compared to other Cape Verdean artists, such as the late Orlando Pantera. “I have great respect for Orlando Pantera as a musician and composer, but my music doesn’t have anything to do with Orlando Pantera’s – he said at the beginning of his career. “What he did was his and what I do is mine,” he added.
The definition Tcheka gave of his style was consistent with this, “It’s Cape Verdean music with a lot of influences. They are for me very welcome because music is something inclusive and should always be open to new contributions. My music – he added – is borderless, it’s open to fusions that do nothing but enrich it. And this fusion is what keeps it from losing its originality.” Some years later, this definition still seems to fit. His father, Nho Raul Andrade, was a violinist and taught him music. For a long time Tcheka played only as an amateur, earning his living as a cameraman for Cape Verde national TV.

‘Borderless’ is also a good word to describe the support band that joins Tcheka in Dor de mar. It includes renowned African and European artists such as the Malagasy accordion player Regis Gizavo (not new to collaborating with Cape Verde musicians, he also accompanied the ‘barefoot legend’ Cesaria Evora) and French jazz trumpeter Antoine Illouz. Even European electronic music makes an appearance in the album with a distorted electric guitar in Moça de classe. The most distinguishing contribution to Dor de mar’s sound, nevertheless, is Tcheka’s voice and the acoustic guitar.

If the twelve tracks have some flaws, these lie precisely in their similarities. It takes more than one listening to realise that Tcheka has an approach of his own in dealing with cross-cultural influences. A good example of this is Primeru Djobi, where jazz intertwines with guitar riffs and percussions. The result is an original sound that can be appreciated by people of all cultures, just as true world music should be. (D.M.)

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