Cape Verde's batuku rhythms lured Lura
Lura's first trip to the Cape Verde islands in 1996 left an indelible mark on her. Born to emigrants from the remote archipelago-located 500 km off the coast of West Africa-the deep-voiced chanteuse had spent all her life in cosmopolitan Lisbon, where she started out performing disco songs. Though she was active in the city's large Cape Verdean community, nothing could prepare Lura for the emotional impact of her ancestral homeland.
"To begin with I was troubled by the parched landscapes, and the poverty I saw all around," says the 33-year-old singer, reached in Amherst, Massachusetts, and speaking in French. "It saddened me. But once I started to meet people-and especially my relatives-their hospitality and their resilience really moved me. Cape Verdeans have an incredible will to live, and remain joyful amid much hardship. Their music plays a big role in that for them. Now it's become essential for me as well. I love that there is such a variety of traditions."
Before attaining independence in 1975, Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony and an important watering station on the Atlantic trade routes. Seamen and merchants from all over the world mixed with immigrants and former slaves, and the population of the islands became racially and culturally diverse. During visits, Lura absorbed the homegrown music, particularly on the island of Santiago, where the African influence is strongest.
She changed her repertoire entirely to songs by contemporary Cape Verdean writers, and eventually broke onto the world-music scene with the release of the beautifully-produced album Di Korpu Ku Alma in 2005. A number of the tracks feature a fast-paced Santiago rhythm called batuku, over which she displays the full sensuality and elasticity of her voice.
"Batuku was traditionally played by groups of women who gathered when the men were at work. There was usually a soloist, who improvised verses, and a chorus. The songs often satirized people and events in their lives. When I sing batuku, I play hand percussion on the tchabeta. Originally this was just a rolled-up cloth held between the thighs, though I use a cushion instead. There is an accompanying dance, with movements that start from the stomach. The colonial authorities considered it erotic, so they banned batuku-but of course it just went underground."
On her most recent release, the energetic and sophisticated M'bem di Fora, Lura performs several songs in another formerly banned Santiago rhythm, the propulsive and lightly syncopated funana. "It's very old and African and was played at parties. Funana came from the slaves, and the Portuguese thought it too dangerous to have them behaving like wild people. It's very popular for dancing now throughout Cape Verde. The country has many different rhythms like that. I like presenting them to new audiences, so they can appreciate something of the richness of the culture."
Lura plays at the Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre on Wednesday (October 22).