Top 10 Afro-Lusophone Albums (A Subjective Selection) PART 1

by Jacob on March 30, 2012

Yesterday I left Johannesburg, South Africa and flew to Walvis Bay, Namibia to meet up with the National Geographic Explorer ship. I will be traveling with the cruise for the next 24 days as it winds its way up the coast of West Africa, stopping in 14 countries along the way. As a guest speaker, I have helped organize a number of concerts along the way by some top African artists, as well as leading some introductory listening sessions on African music.

While I know I haven’t finished my South African entries (I still have part two of my favorite South African musical moments to work on, as well as a recap of some highlights from the hundreds of CDs I picked up in South Africa), but since we will be arriving in Angola shortly I thought I would skip ahead and do a few entries on Afro-Portuguese music.

Since its late at night as the ship plows through the Atlantic Ocean, I will focus just on Cape Verde and Angola for now, and hopefully I’ll be able to get to Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, etc soon.

I first heard the music of Cape Verde when I was working for a French CD import company in the early 1990s. One of the labels we distributed was Lusafrica, a Paris-based label founded by the Cape Verdean producer and entrepreneur José da Silva. José (I can call him José because we remain friendly after all these years) introduced Cesaria Evora to the world, and though she passed away in December of last year, her impact will last for generations to come.

Lusafrica produced two compilations at the time, a collection celebrating the 20th anniversary of the independence of the Afro-Lusophone countries from Portugal in 1975 and an overview of Cape Verdean music. These as well as the artist albums we distributed totally blew my mind.

This was not your stereotypical African sounds…sure, there was funky polyrhythms and plenty of drums, but the melodies were very sophisticated, some of the songs were quite slow, and thanks to the use of small guitars (called cavaquinhos just like in Brazil) the music sounded more Brazilian to me then African (I know, Brazilian music is African, but you know what I mean).

Lusafrica also re-released a seminal album from the Angolan singer Bonga Kuenda, which I fell so deeply in love with we licensed it for US release. Angola 72 was and remains one of the all-time classic albums of African music. I eventually got to meet Bonga in Paris. He took me to dinner at a Cameroonian restaurant and the dish he ordered for me was the only thing I have not been able to eat in my life. I have eaten every body part of every animal you can imagine. I’ve eaten so many different animal brains, testicles, stomach lining, blood, what have you, you can trust me when I say I will pretty much eat anything. But the okra-based stew that they served me that night was essentially in its salty taste and booger-like consistency too close to human phlegm for even me to stomach. Of course, one I passed on it Bonga laughed and wolfed it down himself as if were the ambrosia of the gods. Ugh, still makes me gag thinking about it.

My love of Afro-Portuguese music was deepened when I traveled to Lisbon for a Putumayo research trip. Their I met many of the cities African musicians and discovered some absolutely killer record shops that specialized in music from the former Portuguese colonies of Africa. Needless to say, I ditched most of my clothes in my hotel room so I had room to carry home all the music I acquired.

I’m going to quote extensively from the liner notes to the Putumayo compilation An Afro-Portuguese Odyssey, which I’m allowing myself to do because I wrote them!:

“Separated by long stretches of deep ocean or vast expanses of terrain, the countries of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, and São Tomé & Príncipe had practically no historical or cultural association before the arrival of Portuguese sailors and explorers in the 1400s. Today, while the miles between them have in no way decreased, their common colonial legacy has connected them like in-laws in a vast cross-continental family. 

Known as Lusophone Africa, or colloquially as the Palop countries (an anagram for Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa, or African Countries with Portuguese as the Official Language), the countries represented on An Afro-Portuguese Odyssey are home to distinct histories, languages, economies, cultures, and traditions. Yet they are unified by a national language that originated far from any of their borders and interaction forced upon them by years of Portuguese rule. The blend of Portuguese and African cultures resulted in new and unique music, food, art, and other expressions.

Prior to the arrival of Portuguese traders thirsty for gold, spices, and slave labor, each country in Lusophone Africa was headed on its own historical trajectory. Once Europeans had exerted control, their directions began to converge, and each traveled down a similar path of domination, exploitation, revolution, and reconstruction. While none of the European colonial regimes were without their fair share of brutality, Portuguese rule was particularly oppressive and long-lasting. The Lusophone countries were among the last African colonies to achieve independence. The brutal struggles for self-determination ended less than thirty years ago.

When the Portuguese arrived in what is now Angola it was dominated by Bantu-speaking kingdoms of the Kongo, Ndongo, Matamba, and others who built up an extensive trading network. The Portuguese did not have an easy time taking over the area, as the various kingdoms allied with each other or with other European powers to keep the Portuguese at bay. The Angolan slave trade was seen as essential by the Portuguese for the development of the sugar industry in Brazil. In 1648 a large force from Brazil under the command of Salvador Correia de Sa occupied Luanda, Angola, leading to the return of the Portuguese in large numbers and the eventual downfall of the various kingdoms. Over the centuries, the Portuguese ruthlessly ruled the country until a coup in Portugal in 1974 opened a door for Angolan nationalists to declare their independence. Angola quickly became a battlefront in the Cold War, as the Soviet-backed MPLA movement engaged in a brutal civil war with the US-supported FNLA and UNITA groups. The war between the MPLA and UNITA has continued in fits and starts to this day, although current peace discussion seem the most promising in decades.

Both Cape Verde and São Tomé & Príncipe were uninhabited islands before the Portuguese discovered them and began populating them with slaves from the mainland. The rugged and isolated islands of Cape Verde are located in the Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles off the coast of the West African country of Senegal. A former colony of Portugal, Cape Verde was an important port of call for slave ships on their way to the New World. Caught between Europe, Africa and the New World, the people of Cape Verde are mostly Creoles or mestiços, descended from a mix of West African slaves and Portuguese colonists. The majority of the population speaks Crioulo, a language that blends antiquated Portuguese with West African languages.

While there are over a million people in the world who call themselves Cape Verdean, only about 300,000 actually live on the islands. Most Cape Verdeans have found homes in Portugal, Holland, France, and the United States. The world’s largest Cape Verdean community is in the state of Massachusetts. The community traces its history back to the mid-1700s, when New England whaling ships began hunting whales in the vicinity of Cape Verde and hired locals for their harpooning and whale hunting skills. Seeking to escape the poverty, drought, and famine of their homeland, Cape Verdeans began settling in the fishing villages of Massachusetts, establishing a foothold for future generations of Cape Verdean immigrants.

Located 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, the rugged Cape Verde islands were home only to lizards and a few Senegalese fisherman until the Portuguese stumbled across them during their voyages of discovery and colonization around 1456. The string of about 10 islands was dubbed Cape Verde (Green Cape) after the closest Senegalese peninsula, although much of the countryside is barren and dry. The Portuguese quickly imported African slaves to cultivate the land, and Cape Verde itself became an important port of call for slave ships on their way to the New World. The isolated islands were tempting prizes for pirates, who raided and looted the port cities regularly until the lucrative slave trade was abolished in 1876.

With its main industry outlawed, Cape Verde soon languished into a forgotten colonial outpost, too poor in resources to provide for its people, subject to drought and famine. Cape Verde’s history in the 20th century is one of migration and exile, as most of its population moved to enclaves in Portugal, France, the Netherlands and the United States in search of opportunities.

What Cape Verde lacks in material wealth it more than makes up for in cultural richness. Caught between Europe, Africa and the New World, the people of Cape Verde are mostly Creoles or mestiços, descended from a mix of West African slaves and Portuguese colonists. The majority of the population speaks Crioulo, a language that bends antiquated Portuguese with West African languages such as Yoruba and Bantu, although there are subtle linguistic differences from island to island. The music of Cape Verde, as with most of its cultural expressions, reflects this diversity and combines elements of Portuguese, African and Brazilian styles to create an entirely unique art form.

Life for many Cape Verdeans is one of isolation and separation. While there are over a million people in the world who call themselves Cape Verdean, only about 300,000 actually live on the islands. Most Cape Verdeans have found homes in insular communities in Europe and the United States, often leaving loved ones and families members behind. Isolated from the rest of the world, from their compatriots overseas, and even isolated by stretches of sea from their own countrymen on other islands, Cape Verdeans have developed a sense of pensive longing that permeates their cultural expressions. There is even a word that has come to describe this emotional state, one that has been immortalized in literature and song and has come to define the Cape Verdean character: sodade (so-DAHJ). A sentiment of nostalgia, yearning and missing of home and beloved, sodade describes a bittersweet feeling that has no direct English translation but one that all of us have felt at some time in our lives.

Indeed, morna, the most important Cape Verdean music style is languid and slow, its minor-key melodies tinged with contemplation, its poetic lyrics ripe with metaphors of desire, longing and separation. Closely related to the Portguese fado, the morna developed long before anyone can remember and its origins are foggy and disputed. Some claim it has a Brazilian provenance, deriving from the modinha, an 18th century song style popular in the former Portguese colony. Others detect a British flavor, claiming sailors on the trading ships that transported coal from the city of Mindelo to the British Isles influenced it. Indeed, the word “morna” may be derived from the English word “mourn.” Some researchers argue that fado and morna are both descendents of slave songs from São Tomé and Príncipe, a small island in the Gulf of Guinea. Modern morna is a sophisticated and elaborate music form that is the perfect canvas for arrangers, composers and lyricists. The Cape Verdean cousin of the blues, morna is the central vehicle for traditional Cape Verdean musical expression.

Yet Cape Verdeans are not dour and depressed by any sense of the imagination. They are a people who love to celebrate and enjoy life, and their culture is as much about joy and merriment as it is pensive and poetic reflection. While morna has become the most cherished Cape Verdean music, more upbeat and festive styles are also popular. Coladeira is a bouncy dance music that developed from the morna and shares many of its melodic structures, although it is much more rhythmically involved. Influenced by Caribbean zouk and Brazilian samba, the coladeira has a spicier flavor and the arrangements often include horn sections or punchy keyboards. Another popular dance style is funana, which is faster and more energetic than coladeira. Traditionally played with accordion and ferrinho, an iron scraper that makes a rhythmic, raspy sound, funana has deep African roots. In recent years, funana has been augmented with synthesizers and arrangements inspired by jazz, Caribbean music and rock. There are a host of other styles in Cape Verde, many of them specific to individual islands, including danse, finaçon, and batuco.

In recent years, Cape Verdean music has become known on the international stage through the work of Cesaria Evora. Known as “the Barefoot Diva” because of her proclivity for performing with no shoes on as symbol of solidarity with the impoverished and neglected people of her homeland, Evora specializes in morna, although she regularly performs and records coladeiras and other styles. One of the most successful of today’s world music artists, Cesaria skyrocketed from obscurity as a cabaret singer in the smoky bars of the port city of Mindelo to soldout performances in prestigious venues in Paris, London, and New York.

While Cesaria’s success has introduced the world to the beauty of Cape Verdean music, none of her compatriots have achieved comparable recognition. It would not be an exaggeration to call Cape Verdeans some of the most musical people on the planet, and the depth of their creativity given the paucity of their population is astounding. Music pulses through the daily life of Cape Verdeans like blood, binding disparate communities and uniting distant cousins in a celebration of a unique and bountiful culture. Separation has not weakened Cape Verdean culture, if anything it has given it strength, as immigrants use music to reflect their love of their homeland. The Cape Verdean communities of Boston, Paris and Lisbon have become pillars of support for Cape Verdean performers, and most recordings of Cape Verdean music are made in these cities. The prolific output of Cape Verdean musicians provides a treasure trove of wonderful music to discover, and a source for exploring the enchantment and charm of these mysterious and romantic islands.

Indeed, much of Lusophone Africa’s music is produced outside of the country where it originated. Because of war, political oppression, economic strife, or lack of performance opportunities, many of the best artists from the Palop countries live, perform, and record in the cultural outposts of Lisbon, Paris, Holland, and the United States. Many of these artists return regularly to their homelands to see family, reconnect with their culture, but most Lusophone artists live with a tinge of nostalgia and longing for the home that they left behind.

The music of Lusophone Africa is marked by profound differences as well as strong similarities. Because of colonial suppression of much traditional culture, most of Lusophone Africa’s contemporary popular music reflects a strong influence from Portuguese music and instrumentation. Yet, music was used as a tool of revolutionary expression, as artists sought to recreate styles that had been suppressed for centuries. Brazilian music, whose roots are also in Africa, has had a profound influence on Lusophone Africa’s music.

The results of this musical melting pot are musical categories  that encompass diverse styles like Cape Verdean morna and coladeira, Angolan semba and kizomba, Guinean gumbé, and Mozambican marrabenta. Yet, as the songs on An Afro-Portuguese Odyssey indicate, while Lusophone music is rich and varied, there is a strong family resemblance. The extraordinary cultural expression that emerged from the troubled legacy of Lusophone Africa is a testament to the power and creativity of the human spirit.”

Wow, and this was just a portion of the introduction from Putumayo’s An Afro-Portuguese Odyssey! This album was done back in the day when I was given a lot of room to write (maybe too much room!).

Without further ado, here are my personal favorite Cape Verdean and Angolan albums. Because I am on a ship with slow internet access via satellite, I can’t give you links right now to videos or purchase, but I’m sure if you google them you will find something to hear and, hopefully, buy.


Top 10 Afro-Lusophone Albums (A Subjective Selection) PART 1


Cape Verde

Miss Perfumado

Cesaria Evora Miss Perfumado
Known as “the Barefoot Diva” for her habit of performing with no shoes, Cesaria Evora was Cape Verde’s first and biggest international superstar. She was master of the morna, the mournful ballad form, and her soulful voice sounded both girlish and world-weary. Cesaria passed away at the end of 2011.


Mayra Andrade Navega
One of my all-time favorite albums, Mayra Andrade has a gorgeous, smoky voice and she also happens to be stunningly beautiful. Navega was her first album and she has yet to improve upon it.



Various Artists The Soul of Cape Verde
The Paris-based Lusafrica label is the leading Lusophone music record label, and their classic collection draws from their extensive and representative catalog. Well selected and sequenced with extensive liner notes.



Sara Tavares Balance
Based in Lisbon, Portugal, Sara Tavares started as a gospel and jazz singer before finding her own voice. Her music is smooth, gentle yet buoyed with catchy rhythms and her silky, approachable style.




Tcheka Lonji
Tcheka has a unique sound that is clearly Cape Verdean yet not stuck to tradition. His rhythms and melodies are very engaging and he has a rich, unusual voice.



Mendes Brothers Cabo Verde / Kabu Verdi
Based in the Boston area, the João and Ramiro Mendes are leading Cape Verdean songwriters and producers. They have been responsible for many great songs performed by others, yet their own music is wonderful as well.



Bana Gira Sol
Bana is a legendary figure in Cape Verde and one of the country’s first big stars. Adriano Gonçalves, his given name, was born in the small port city of Mindelo in 1932 and began singing at the age of fourteen. After ten years without releasing a record, Bana recorded the album Gira Sol in 1997 at the age of 65.



La-MC Malcriado Nos Probéza Ké Nos Rikeza
La-MC Malcriado takes Cape Verdean roots music in new directions by adding in hip-hop. They clearly respect their traditions, though, and much of the music relies on acoustic instruments, and their approach to rap has a uniquely Cape Verdean melodic quality.



Lura De Korpo e Alma
A firebrand on stage, Lura was born in 1975, and raised in the large Cape Verdean community of Lisbon, Portugal. She didn’t even travel to her parent’s native land until she was 21, but she fell in love with the music. Lura is more focused on the sensual and upbeat dance styles of batuku and funana.



Maria de Barros Nha Mundo
Maria de Barros lives in Los Angeles, was born in Dakar, Senegal and spent the first 13 years of her life in the country of Mauritania in northwest Africa, but it is the music of Cape Verde, her parents’ native land, that serves as her main musical inspiration. De Barros’ specialty is the upbeat party music known as coladeira.


Various Artists Putumayo Presents: Cape Verde
Full disclosure, I helped with the selection and wrote the liner notes for this compilation. The enjoyable melodies and irresistible rhythms of Cape Verdean music makes this an enduringly popular collection.




Bonga Angola 72
Another desert island album, this re-release captures the scratchy, unimaginably soulful voice of Bonga when he was young and full of revolutionary fervor. An Olympic star before being exiled for his outspoken opposition to Portuguese rule, Bonga recorded this masterpiece in the Netherlands. A true classic.


Paulo Flores Recompasso
Flores first came to fame as an innovator of kizomba, a modern style that blends Caribbean zouk with Angolan rhythms. While programmed drum beats and synthesizer dominated his early recordings, his more recent work uses only acoustic instruments such as guitar, accordion, and traditional Angolan percussion.


Carlitos Vieira Dias As Vozes de um Canto
A virtuoso guitar player, Carlitos Vieira Dias borrows the instrument of the colonizer and makes it his own by adding syncopated Angolan rhythms and lilting melodies.



Duo Ouro Negro Kurikutela! 40 Anos, 40 Exitos
Formed in 1956, Duo Ouro Negro (which means The Black Gold Duet in English) was one of Angola’s most popular and successful groups until the death of cofounder Milo MacMahon in 1985. Forced into exile during the Angolan civil war of the 1970s, they returned in 1975 after independence.


Wyza Africa Yaya
Wyza is a member of the Bakongo tribe, which is based between southern Congo and northern Angola. When he and his mother fled warfare in their region and moved to Luanda he brought with him the rhythms of his region, which were largely unknown in the capital.  He has produced two well-received albums.


Waldemar Bastos Pretaluz
One of Angola’s most popular singers, Waldemar Bastos has lived away from his native land for most of his adult life, yet his songs speak of his love for his roots. Pop star David Byrne bought one of Bastos’ albums at a record shop in Lisbon and signed him to his record label, which led to the creation of this album.


Banda Maravilha Angola Maravilha
Angola’s premier performers of semba, a style that is rhythmically related to Brazilian samba (you’ll notice the names are quite similar as well). Released in 1997, this albums is one of the biggest-selling in Angolan history. Upbeat and fun, the name semba is derived from the word masemba meaning “to touch bellies.”


Lulendo Angola
As with so many Angolans, Lulendo fled the country during the 1980s and is now based in Paris. An innovator on the likembe, a thumb piano also known as the mbira or kalimba, Lulendo’s music reflects the nostalgia and melancholy of a life in exile.


Mario Rui Silva Luanda 50/60 Angola
Mario Rui Silva is an Angolan singer and multi-instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to the research, preservation and revival of his country’s popular songs. Since he was a young child, Silva has been fascinated with the rich melodies and poetry of Angolan songs from the 1940s-60s, a fertile and creative period in the country’s music history.


Ruy Mingas Monangambe
The soul and spirit of Ruy Mingas’ limited material has impacted a generation of Angolan musicians. His early 1970s recordings remain seminal albums. Mingas has used his political skills to promote his country’s music and culture, serving as the Minister of Culture of Angola for many years.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher McQuale May 29, 2015 at 1:48 PM

Great article, thanks. One thing that I thought I would mention is the unique relationship formed by the old sea trade triangle that existed in particular between Cape Verde, Brazil, and Angola that began historically with the Portuguese dominance in the slave trade (Papal Bull giving Portugal exclusive charter to sell slaves, so in the beginning everyone got their slaves from the Portuguese – with most of the original ports on the west coast of African established by the Portuguese) or from the Arabs. Some of this can be traced through the origins of the French word Creole coming from Portuguese (criolo) and by some sources first applied in Cape Verde referring to slaves brought up in the home of their master (mixed culture, not necessarily mixed breed, as in mulatto). The music and dance of these three is very intertwined, more so than the other Portuguese colonies. Moreover, but as an complete aside is the affinity that will always exist between ancient seafaring nations, Portugal and Cape Verde being forced by circumstance to turn to the sea for sustenance. Their music was often designed to provide entertainment during the long voyages, wherein sea-hardy instruments could be used to provide rhythms and melodies for dancing and entertainment on deck (the Afro-Latin equivalent of what we know as Sea Shanties in the English folk tradition, but that evolved into Calypso when mixed with African rhythms).
Funana is a good example, the backbone of which is provided by the ferro (rough iron bar with a knife used to slide and make rhythmic scraping sound) and Gaita or basic Portuguese accordion (harmonica in Brazil, but developed from the ancient Portuguese bagpipe (Gaita) not dissimilar to the uilleann or Irish pipes, variations of which can be found all along the western coast of Europe, enclaves of Celtic culture, etc., most of which were introduced to Europe after the Crusades and Mediterranean trade exposed Europeans to Middle Eastern Arabic double-reed instruments); the pilon or simple tall, thin drum and then adding the African call-and-response singing style and an occasional guitar or cavaquinho. But if you listen to the Cape Verdian group “Ferro Gaita”, you can hear similar shanty-styles and rhythms that lend themselves well to dancing on the deck of a ship.
Additionally in Brazil you have the cueca and berimbau, both of which have their origins in Angola, along with capoeira.
Anyway, I wanted to point out that kizomba is a mixture of Angolan, Cape Verdean (funana), and Caribbean musical styles.


Jacob May 29, 2015 at 2:25 PM

Thanks for the brilliant comments, Chris. You are spot on. Just travel to New Bedford, Mass., which is home to one of the largest Cape Verdean communities in the world, for evidence of the legacy of a life connected to the sea. Cape Verdeans and Azoreans were known as excellent whalers, there’s even a Cape Verdean character in “Moby Dick”. As New Bedford was once a major whaling port, many Cape Verdeans and Portuguese immigrants settled there.

Another tangible bit of evidence of the long history of the Portuguese at sea: the ukelele. When I was recently on the Portuguese island of Madeira I bought a small, four-stringed guitar called a braguinha, which I was told is the ancestor of the ukelele. Portuguese sailors used small guitars and other small instruments to entertain themselves at sea. When they passed through Hawaii, the locals loved their little guitars and adapted them into what we now know as the ukelele.

We tend to think of globalization as a recent phenomenon, but the cross connections of music reveal that cultures have been interacting for thousands of years, and often, they were brought together by the sea.


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