Sara Tavares was only 16 years old, when she won two of Portugal’s most prestigious TV music contests. Born out of a second generation Cape Verdean immigrants, Sara grew up between two cultures.
Initially known as a singer and composer of Gospel, Soul and Funk, she gradually incorporated more of her African music in her compositions. In 1994, she recorded her first album Sara Tavares & Shout, released in 1996. To present the album she performed all over Portugal, Cape Verde, and France.
Her second album Mi Ma Bô, produced by Lokua Kanza, reached gold in Portugal. The album was a mix of African rhythms and melodic pop songs.
By the end of 1998, Sara Tavares decided to start working on her new album. To achieve that, she stopped performing, and went through a long period of introspection to search for her real roots and influences.
As a result of such profound search, Mi Ma Bô was born. Mi Ma Bô, which translated from the criolo (language from Cape Verde) means “Me and You”, is an intimate album, wherein Sara’s voice links all the emotions expressed in its lyrics and melodies.
In this record, Sara Tavares establishes herself not only as a huge musical talent, but also as a composer and co-producer, which assures us of her maturity, her talent and of the long career she has in front of her.
Mi Ma Bô was produced by Lokua Kanza, a musician from Congo, living in Paris. He has previously worked with other African artists such as Ray Lema, Manu Dibango, Papa Wemba, Miriam Makeba and Youssou N’dour. Together with Sara’s co-production, the final result is a very special album, with African colours and a touch of soul, that winds up stirring the listener’s soul.
Sung in three different languages (Portuguese, Criolo and English), “Mi Ma Bô” really shows the universality of the language of music. The album reached gold status in Portugal.
In 2006, her third album, Balancê, came out on World Connection (Europe) and Times Square (North America).
Sara Tavares has become one of the leading exponents of Lisbon’s world music scene. “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,” says Tavares. “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,” Tavares explains. “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.”
Multilingual wordplay shows up throughout Tavares’ album, and she hops across cultural references as much as she embraces any. The album title Balancê has many different meanings. The noun balan?o is used in Portuguese when music swings. Lusophone Africans use the verb form Balancê in a more general way. “When you are eating something really good you say “this food is Balancê!“? explains Tavares.
“For me the song, Balancê is also about balancing yourself,” Tavares continues, “between sadness and joy; day and night; salt and sugar. It’s about balancing emotions. You are always walking a thin line and you have to keep your balance. You have to dance with that line in order to keep standing. If you stay too rigid, you will fall.”
“I was in Zimbabwe a few years ago and I saw some really drunk people dancing,” Tavares chuckles. “We were watching them, and they were always almost falling and then they would catch themselves. Just like those people dancing, I also want to dance with that kind of freedom and balance.”
Through music, Tavares seeks cultural roots, along with the help of veteran African musicians in Lisbon and back in Cape Verde where she travels every year.
“The whole album is like little lullabies to myself,” says Tavares. “All the messages are about self-esteem, loving yourself. About liking what is different in you. About integrating all the parts of you.”
“Bom Feeling,” whose title combines a Portuguese word with an English word that “everyone uses,” translates as “Good Feeling.” While some people look down on the Portuguese slang associated with African people in Portugal, Tavares embraces it. Tavares says she is from a “broken home” and identifies with street culture.
“Poka Terra” is influenced by Afro-Beat and semba (a style from Angola). The song’s title is an onomatopoeia for the sound a train makes. Tavares is calling on people to catch the train of consciousness and to become responsible for yourself. She sings “An alligator that sleeps will be turned into an alligator bag sold in some store.”
On “Planeta Sukri” (Sugar Planet) Tavares places a reggae style sound system on top of a traditional Cape Verdean rhythm coladeira (a style made popular by Cesaria Evora). “The poem of this song can be seen as a love poem,” says Tavares. “I am saying “Take me to a sugar planet, take me to place where there is no sadness, no cries. And this place is inside of you and me and everyone.” I mean it more in a spiritual way than a romantic way. The ballads are very much like little prayers.”
Tavares talks to the moon on “Muna Xeia” (Full Moon). The song title emerged when Tavares made a mistake and accidentally combined the English word “moon” with the Portuguese word for the same “lua.” “It’s a very feminine song with me talking to the women,” Tavares explains. “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.””
Tavares spent time in Cape Verde working with a contemporary dance company. “You know how contemporary artists do crazy experimental stuff” she asks. “Well, they gave me the strength to experiment. If those who live in and own the culture, then we in diaspora can also experiment. As long as someone keeps the tradition. It’s a two-sided knife.”
“I want to be a part of a movement like the African Americans were, like the African Brazilians were,” Tavares says. “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!”
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.