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A Songstress Searches for her Roots and Relevance


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

When she was 16, Sara represented Portugal, where she was born of Cape Verdean parents, in the Eurovision Song Contest.

 

She seemed destined for stardom, but her meteoric rise was no smooth path upward. There were issues. She was an African child abandoned by her birth parents, reared by a Portuguese woman in a European culture. It is little wonder than in her search for wholeness, she latched on to what was both Black and popular, that is, African American music.
 
Her first album, Sara Tavares & Shout, is an admirable mixture of gospel and funk, with calls to Jesus and funky backbeats that exhort one to dance.

 

These songs display the power of Sara’s pipes. If this whole album had been in English, one would not have been able to tell that this person was not a native African American - as opposed to an acculturated African American - which is what Sara was at that point in terms of her music tastes and expressions.

 

Clearly Sara could have continued in this direction, but she chose to explore her own roots, so rather than looking across the Atlantic, she looked to the West African Coast - to her parents’ home country of  Cape Verde.
 
The second album, 1998’s Mi Ma Bo, went gold in
Portugal and seemed to cement Sara’s status as a fledgling superstar.

 

All the gospel is gone. The funk has been toned completely down to a simmer. The lead producer is Paris-based Lokua Kanza who brings a modern African pop sound complete with electronic keyboards. Also, most of the songs are collaborations between Sara, her manager of that period, Ani Fonseca, and Kanza.

 

The album is a mixed bag of fully composed songs, and song fragments or simple, folk-like refrains, plus, a couple of obligatory “Soul” tunes. The funky, little love song “Mi Ma Bo” (You And Me) attracts major attention.

 

      

 

To see a video excerpt of Sara performing “Mi Ma Bo” in 2001, click here.

Sarah has an awesomely beautiful voice. It is not hyperbole to refer to her voice as angelic. As a showcase for her wonderful instrument, the album is a delight.

 

But Sara is also clearly searching for something. It would be easy to say, a search for roots, but there is a deeper truth. Although it is undoubtedly true that finding one’s traditional roots is important, there is an even more critical quest: the search for meaning, for relevance, a search that includes digging ones roots but also requires making an assessment of which way to go forward, what responsibilities to shoulder, what community to identify with and uplift.


On Mi Ma Bo, Sarah is all over the place, one moment singing a Soul song, the next a fragment modelled on traditional folk songs of Cape Verde.

 

Moreover, each element remains distinct, and thus there is not yet a unified whole, not yet a spot in which each part fits comfortably beside the other. And then there is the little problem that the album when gold.

Gold! Problem? It was on BMG-RCA, a major label. And for sure they wanted another gold record, except they surely hoped that the next one would sell more than the last one.

 

So, at the point where she was expected to zoom onwards and upwards, Sara drops out. Instead of an immediate second helping, Sara declines to produce a quick follow-up. In fact, her next album would not be for five years, which in the music business akin to two and a half lifetimes for an ingénue.

In the interim, she does two guest spots on a live recording by one of the most popular Portuguese groups. “Solta-Se O Beijo,” one of her two features, not only becomes a hit, it also is the title of the album by Ala Dos Namorados.

 

The song has a strong Cuban flavour and is a dance floor favourite, all of which undoubtedly put more pressure on Sara, pressure which she may have ignored, but pressure that was nonetheless palpable.
 
So when Sara does come out with Balance, her third release, it’s on an independent label and it’s an acoustic set full of ballads and mid-tempo songs. It’s produced by Sara and she wrote or co-wrote all of the music, plus plays percussion and miscellaneous instruments in addition to her guitar work. This is not what BMG would have wanted.

Released November 2005 in
Portugal and February 2006 worldwide, the album sells well — and not just to Sara’s hardcore fans. It’s a top seller on European i-tunes.

 

Rather than gush effusively about how good the album is, I will restrain myself and just make a few points.
 
Sarah has found a way to integrate her roots-search into one sound that mixes not only African and African American influences, but also Brazilian and European elements. She no longer could be mistaken for a Soul singer or even a traditional Africanist.

There is something of all the diverse elements swimming through her music. Although this easily could have been a goulash of indistinguishable origins, instead Sara has prepared a gumbo within which each ingredient retains its distinctiveness even as the whole of it is made more tasty by the mix of the different ingredients.

Exemplary of this recipe is the song “Muna Xeia,” whose very title is a mixture. Translated as “full moon,” the word “muna” is actually a mixture of the Portuguese “lua” and the English word “moon.” 

 

And finally, Sara uses the metaphor of the moon to address her identity: “It’s a very feminine song with me talking to the women. First the woman inside of me and then the women in Africa and the women in the world. I sing, ‘Moon go in peace, moon go in faith, walk in peace, walk in faith’.”

 

And need I add, she sings it beautifully. Here is an organic and poetic articulation of sisterhood whose beauty is enhanced and strengthened by its political implications.
 
Two, she has figured out how to get down without imitating funk or rap. In fact, it is noteworthy that most of the tracks do not even have a bass on them.

 

Gone are the programmed beats that characterized parts of Mi Ma Bo. There is not even a drum kit on many of the tracks. Nevertheless, there is dance and rap elements here, but transformed. The title song best exemplifies this as she mixes a plethora of dance styles into one joyous albeit paradoxically gentle, jump-up.

Fortunately, Sarah has a video for "Balance." The video is available here. It is a very simple concept, warmly done in black and white.

 

The music encompasses diverse generations, diverse nationalities, diverse dance styles, but all on the one, on the same beat. Especially alluring is how sensual Sara is in the flow of her movements, her undulating dance. She is beautiful. She is attractive. And though there is an obvious sexuality to the dances, there is none of the raw sex that is so prevalent in Black popular music today.

Like I said, I will resist the urge to go on and on about how she shapes a melody, how she scats and improvises, the clarity of her voice, etc. etc. I will just conclude with a word to the wise: check out Sara Tavares.

 

Sara Tavares on Balance:

 

 

There is a big, big generation of Cape Verdeans and other Africans here in Lisbon, in Paris, in Boston, all over… with a kind of messed-up identity. Our generation feels very lost because there is no culture specifically for us; that talks about our reality.


When I walk around with my friends, it’s a very, very interesting community. We speak Portuguese slang, Angolan slang, some words in Cape Verdean Crioulo, and of course some English. In Crioulo there are already English and French words. This is because slaves from all over the world had to communicate and didn’t speak the same languages. We are a metisse culture.


 The whole album is like little lullabies to myself. All the messages are about self-esteem, loving yourself. About liking what is different in you. About integrating all the parts of you.


I want to be a part of a movement like the African Americans were, like the African Brazilians were. Instead of doing the music of their ancestors, they have created this musical identity of their own. And it is now respected. It is considered whole and authentic and genuine. It will be a long time before the people from my generation do not have to choose between being African or European. I think you shouldn’t have to choose. You should just be there. Celebrate that. Be that!


Balance is released on World Connections Label and is available at many music retail outlets.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

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