The country’s name is Cape Verde and the young woman is Lura. She sings of this former Portuguese territory, a string of ten islands, ten volcanic pebbles scattered in the ocean off Senegal. Connoisseurs of diva Cesaria Evora are familiar with the little archipelago, insignificant in terms of global strategy, but possessed of a native wisdom that could teach more powerful nations a great deal. Invented by European colonists, tilled by transported Africans and seared by drought, Cape Verde has managed to heal the wounds inflicted by a history of famine and become a hospitable, peaceful, proud country. Lura sings of this land, where she was not born…
Lura is as young as the country of her roots. Cape Verde split away from Portugal in 1975, the year she was born in Lisbon. Portugal’s capital is home to most of the Cape Verdean diaspora, although large communities are also to be found in Senegal, the north-east United States, Holland, France and Italy. Two-thirds of Cape Verdeans live outside their country and the same is true of their artists. In Lisbon, the Cape Verdean population is mainly concentrated in the suburb of Benfica, in a makeshift district of narrow streets and jerry-built houses. However, the Portuguese-African “centre” of Lisbon is Rua Poço de Negros (Well of the Blacks Street), a long thoroughfare that runs from the historical quarter of Bairro Alto to the Parliament district, and holds many African restaurants, shops and nightclubs.
Lura’s father was from Santiago, the largest, greenest, most African island of Cape Verde, and her mother from São Nicolau, the island that produces the best grog (Cape Verdean rum). “There was nothing artistic about my family, my parents mainly listened to morna,” muses Lura, recalling her early youth with an allusion to the velvet, slightly mocking saudade that, lethargically intoned by Cesaria Evora, has made Cape Verde famous all over the world. “She has opened the way. Now we can present other Cape Verdean styles,” explains Lura.
Lura was a dancer when a singing star of African music in Lisbon, Juka, originally from São Tome and Principe, asked her to appear on his new album. “I was seventeen.
I was supposed to sing backing vocals, but soon Juka asked me to perform a duet with him. I’d never thought about singing, but he insisted,” she says. So Lura discovered the potential of her voice, its deep timbre and sensual inflections. Juka’s zouk was a hit and other Portuguese speaking African celebrities asked Lura to work with them, among them Bonga from Angola and her fellow countrymen Tito Paris, Paulo Florès and Paulinho Vieira.
Meanwhile, she was working with a theatre company as she made her first album with a Portuguese producer: a dance record for her generation featuring syrupy love zouk and sugary r’n’b, Cape Verdean creole-style. “It was mainly aimed at discotheques,” she explains. But despite the album’s commercial recipes and tricks of the trade, the song Nha Vida (My Life) attracted wider interest and was featured on Red Hot + Lisbon, a compilation for the campaign against AIDS, including songs by Brazilian stars Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte and Djavan, Bonga and Teresa Salgueiro, the singer of Portuguese group Madredeus. At the time, Lura was 21.
Having discovered the young prodigy when she sang a duet with Bonga — Mulemba Xangola — Lusafrica produced her second album in 2002. “The record was chiefly aimed at the community’s young people,” the singer says. In other words, it was a cocktail of r’n’b and zouk, the latest craze among Cape Verdean youth. But practised ears picked out two tracks of special worth: Ma’n ba dès bès kumida dâ and Tabanka Assigo, a pair of songs written by the young Tcheka that offer a lingering essence of Cape Verdean music, delicious rhythms sung by a mature, voluptuous voice.
It was not until 2004 that Lura made a truly Cape Verdean record: Di Korpu Ku Alma (Of Body and Soul), whose reputation was boosted in the country and among the diaspora by the success of Vazulina, a story of petroleum-jelly abuse among Africans bent on straightening their hair. The song’s subject is very much a declaration of Cape Verdean identity. It was penned by Orlando Pantera (as were Na Ri Na, Es Bida, Batuku and Raboita di Rubon Manel), a young writer who revolutionised one of Cape Verde’s great traditional genres before his death, establishing a style that inspired an entire generation of new artists.