Before her sassy performance at this year’s WOMAD in Reading, the glamorous singer Lura shared stories of her unique Cape Verdean ancestry with a slice of cake to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. Beautiful, intelligent and absurdly talented, there is a huge buzz about this young singer who has been likened to the great Cesaria Evora
We trace a path that began with the death of the Portuguese dictator Salazar in 1970 and the mass immigration into Portugal that followed. Five years later, Lura was born to Cape Verdean parents in Lisbon. Locked off from much of her parents’ culture by her inability to speak Creole, at first she was indifferent to traditional music, but around the age of 14 something changed. She began to learn Creole and shortly after went to Cape Verde and met a raft of inspirational people including poets, painters and sociologists.
the saudade comes from the reality of life in Cape Verde — from poverty and the experience of missing family members as they leave the islands behind
She discovered that the range of occupations, knowledge and talents of black people in Cape Verde, contrasted strongly with the often menial work done by many black immigrants in Portugal. “I recognised myself when I went to Cape Verde and saw where I came from,” she says.
“I think that young people from Cape Verde have a genuine interest in traditional music but they also bring something of their own style into the rhythms to make it work. This generation is called ‘generation Orlando Pantera’ — he was one of the most important people involved in the revival of traditional music, and his unique guitar playing style, historical research and poetry left an important legacy for us even though he died at such a young age (30).”
It is not long into our conversation before the phrase saudade comes up. It describes one of the quintessential qualities of Cape Verdean music. Famously untranslatable into English, the word conjures up a world of longing and sadness often expressing itself in music or poetry. Lura believes this surfeit of emotion is the key to the musical fertility of the islands: “the saudade comes from the reality of life in Cape Verde — from poverty and the experience of missing family members as they leave the islands behind.” It’s a sad fact that there are twice as many Cape Verdeans outside the islands than there are on them.
If modern Cape Verde is defined by the experience of emigration, it was migration of a different kind that first populated the islands. Lura’s father come from Santiago, the first island to be populated with slaves. Most of them originally came from Senegal and they brought their music with them. “Many other peoples came, including people from Europe, and it created a complex mix,” she says. “The differences between the islands are down to these different mixes of people, heightened by the very different terrains created by the islands’ volcanic activity, and the legacy of different colonial powers. For example, I am black but my skin colour is not very dark and this is due to the mixing of races, which in Cape Verde is the norm.”
Originally a dancer, a chance offer to sing a duet with Juka at the age of 17 gave her a hit and the confidence to develop her vocal talents. Over the next decade she released two albums of zouk and dance music for a local crowd, before releasing Di Korpu Ku Alma — her first distinctively Cape Verdean album. Recorded in 2002 for Lusafrica, it has just been reissued on the Escondida label with a live concert DVD extra.
At the heart of her music, and tying all the elements of Lura’s story together, is a particular rhythm: “Batuku came from the slaves. Because they had no drums, the rhythms would be beaten out on laps in celebration. Batuku is especially associated with the island of Santiago, where it’s mostly played by women who dance and sing along to the rhythms. It also has the social function of giving messages to young people during parties and celebrations.”
Warm, generous and compelling, her music is deeply personal, derivative of ancient traditions, and absolutely contemporary at the same time. There is a sense of striving that makes it all the more persuasive: “In Lisbon, sometimes it is difficult to narrow your focus to just one type of music. You have to be really careful when you study. This issue is even more important for me as I was not born in Cape Verde, but I think I have finally found my own way through.”
Lura is playing the Purcell Room as part of the London Jazz Festival on 15 November, 2005. Tickets are on sale now.
More about Batuku…
Lusafrica — includes details of her extensive current tour of Europe and the US
Lura at WOMAD 2005 in pictures