Carmen Souza’s voice purrs like kernels of corn swirling on a traditional wooden platter one moment and bursts with a perfect blue note the next. It rings like a red-hot solo and sighs like a ship-deck lament. It finds the sweet spot between Birdland and the white sands of Cape Verde, the archipelago far off the coast of West Africa.
Protegid, the London-based musician and songwriter’s latest album, lives in this magical Trans-Atlantic space, thoughtfully exploring the unexpected connections between jazz and Cape Verdean culture. Virtuosic yet warm, stunning and welcoming, Souza, with support from long-time musical collaborator Theo Pas’cal, captures all the possibilities of her Cape Verdean roots, everything from Polish dances to Arabic ornaments, with earthy wisdom and cerebral swing.
Souza has long embraced these roots, the music she grew up hearing her sailor father play on the guitar, the rhythms of language and daily life in a Cape Verdean family. But it wasn’t until she was already studying translation at a university in Lisbon that she discovered the sounds that would forge her voice: the music of jazz greats, from singers like Ella Fitzgerald, who use their voices as instruments, to soloists like Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and, most symbolically, Horace Silver.
Silver points to the intriguing, yet rarely explored connection between American jazz and Cape Verdean music, something Souza felt almost immediately. Silver, whose classic “Song for My Father” gets a new twist thanks to Souza’s Creole lyrics and gorgeous voice, had Cape Verdean ancestry, yet the ties run far deeper.
“Cape Verde was colonized by Portugal, but a lot of other European, African, and Arabic influences came afterward. It’s a mestizo culture,” Souza reflects. “I came to discover that the songs that people sang in the fields on Cape Verde have the same pentatonic scale identified with the blues,” in part due to a shared history of slavery.
This trans-Atlantic link makes Souza’s sway from one idiom to the other effortless. “Magia ca tem” starts out as a morna, the traditional bittersweet song form made famous by Cesaria Evora, yet soon morphs into a full-on jazz swing. “Someone who doesn’t know much about my Cape Verdean roots will most likely identify this morna as a jazz standard,” Souza smiles. “I love that. I love to put things together.”
There’s another element binding blues to Cape Verde’s shores called sodade, a deep and sorrowful longing for home, for the kind of sanctuary Souza’s lyrics often invoke on Protegid. It echoes in the song of the same name, originally recorded by Evora but reimagined by Souza with help from Cuban pianist Victor Zamora.
“’Sodade’ has a great history behind it,” say Souza. “A man was abducted from Cape Verde, taken from his family to work in San Tome, in the fields. While he was on the ship, he wrote these words longing for Cape Verde and his loved ones. It’s a simple story, just a man suffering in this boat. But this song”—like the many, many migrants forced to leave Cape Verde for economic reasons—“went all over the world.”
Souza got her own taste of sodade as a young girl, as her father often left home for months at a time. “My father was traveling everywhere. He worked on cargo ships, common work for Cape Verdean men,” Souza recalls. “I felt this Cape Verdean feeling of sodade quite near me, from early on.”
At the same time, Souza gained great strength from her upbringing and her roots, the protection, both familial and spiritual, reflected in the title track, “Protegid, which means “Protected” in English” And this strength continues to flow, whether she’s uncovering unexpected gems of Cape Verdean wisdom on the internet or exploring unexpected sides of the islands’ wildly multifaceted culture.
“Dos Eternidade” was sparked by an online video Souza came across that featured a Cape Verdean elder speaking his mind. “A video I saw on YouTube had a very wise old man talking about modern society,” Souza remembers. “He was talking about humanity being very focused on material rather than spiritual things, and that there are two eternities: being good and being bad.” These thoughts stayed with Souza as she and Pas’cal were playing with a bass line one day. Intuitively, the close collaborators felt a melody and the lyrics, drawing on the old man’s words, followed naturally.
Souza was inspired by other aspects of Cape Verde’s diverse cultures, where one rhythm that’s well loved but often neglected is the mazurka, which forms the foundation for “M’sta Li Ma Bo.”
Along with Poles and their dances, Cape Verde has long incorporated Arabic influences, on top of its African and European flavors. Souza draws on the sounds of the oud (Arabic lute) and keening vocal ornamentation for the heart-wrenching “Mara Marga,” the frightening tale of a neglected toddler and a powerful indictment of child abuse.
“It’s about how it sounds, but it was also the emotion of the musicians involved and what Adel Salameh, the oud player, and singer Naziha Azzouz could give to the song,” Souza explains. “It’s not very logical, but it’s a very profound thing.”
That profound intuition guided Souza and Pas’cal as they traveled with a portable studio, recording tracks with friends in hotel rooms and borrowed spaces around North America and Europe. Yet everywhere, the duo strove for the intimacy and immediacy of an artful jazz solo. Or of a perfect batch of cachupa.
“Cachupa is a traditional dish that uses dried corn,” Souza explains, “and to choose the corn, women on Cape Verde go through what’s called tente midj. They put the corn on a wooden plate and stir it to a certain rhythm as they sort the kernels. I used to watch my mother do this, and that rhythm begins my song ‘Tente Midj.’ It’s about stirring up your life, not getting too comfortable, staying engaged.”
“Carmen Souza sings in her native creole dialect with an intimacy, sensuality, and vivacity, characterised by a tremendous lightness of touch. Her music has a deceptive simplicity, a rare clarity, derived from a unique mix of influences from her Cape Verdean background to jazz and modern soul creating this beautifully vibrant, largely acoustic, accessible hybrid. World soul music for the 21st century.”— David Sylvian, UK singer-songwriter