The songs of Lisbon-born and -based artist Sara Tavarès reflect the city’s increasingly multicultural identity, with strong communities from lands that until 1974 were colonies of Portugal—such as Cape Verde, off the coast of northwest Africa. Ironically, Tavarès’s ability to absorb a wide range of different rhythms and styles to be found in Lisbon today may come down to her family roots in the small and rocky archipelago.
“My mum and dad came here in the mid-’70s after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal and the independence of Cape Verde,” says Tavarès, reached at her Lisbon home. “There was a big exodus of people then, many from the ex-colonies in Africa, and there’s a large population now of Cape Verdeans, going back four generations. A characteristic of Cape Verdeans is that they always speak the language, eat the food, and play the music of the neighbourhoods into which they move.”
For centuries Cape Verde served as an important Atlantic hub for Portugal’s worldwide trading. Sailors and travellers from many lands brought their different styles of music to its bars and dance halls, later blending the resulting hybrids with western jazz, rock, pop, and more.
“All of the great ships during the time of the voyages of discovery and the slave trade came. Some men stayed and had families, and more slaves were brought from the coast of Africa, mainly Guinea-Bissau. We’ve always been international, I guess. You can see it in the racial mix, and find it culturally, too—like a really African guy who lives in the remote mountains but plays violin or accordion very well. All this is a heritage from those times. I first went there when I was 15 years old, and I’ve been going ever since, every year or two, including for long periods. I’m intimate with the other former colonies, too—Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau in particular.”
Before she started exploring black music directly from Africa, however, Tavarès was already absorbing it via North America. “I was a big fan of Motown, and artists like the Jackson 5, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston,” she says. “Then it was Cuban music, and all the Afro-Brazilian music like samba and Carnaval music. In Portugal we watch a lot of Brazilian soap operas on TV and their soundtracks are really good—with music by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, João Gilberto, Gal Costa, and top people like that. It’s a strange mix. Corny stories, poor acting, and great songs.”
Tavarès—who sings in Portuguese, Cape Verdean Crioulu, and occasionally English—has a voice that’s light, agile, and full of colour. Her first major release, Balancè (2006), is an intelligent blend of global rhythms and folk-pop with a touch of jazz. She followed it up impressively with the self-produced Xinti (2009), an album brimming with warmth and soul. Tavarès wrote all the songs, arranged them for a small combo, and played guitar, bass, and percussion throughout. Then near disaster struck.
“I got really sick,” she reveals. “I had a brain tumour. I was very lucky and blessed, and got through it. I have good health now, and lead a more down-tempo life, more relaxed—before that I was touring for two or three years almost nonstop. Now I stay home for longer periods of time.”
When she returns to Vancouver with her band after a nine-year absence, Tavarès will draw on the percolating world-music and pop songs of Balancè and Xinti as well as more recent material, earmarked for a new album she’ll be releasing in 2016. It promises to have some fresh local flavours. “I’m very much a Lisbon musician, and we have new influences in the past 10 years with people coming from central and eastern Europe. It’s a blast. In Lisbon today you can eat any food, listen to any music. You experience that and it can become a part of your identity and your own music—and it’s changing all the time.”
Sara Tavarès joins fado singer Carminho at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (November 21).