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Carmen Souza gives Cape Verdean sounds a jazz twist

Jazzpilon

As a child growing up in Lisbon, Carmen Souza only visited her family’s home nation of Cape Verde once, for a short trip when she was 10. But that did not stop the singer from having a quintessentially Cape Verdean upbringing.

The family spoke Cape Verdean Creole at home. They associated with friends in the Cape Verdean community — a plentiful group in Portugal, which ruled the rugged mid-Atlantic archipelago until its independence in 1975.

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They ate Cape Verdean food, including the catchall vegetable and meat stew called kachupa, which gives “Kachupada,” Souza’s new album, its name. And Souza’s father would be gone for months at a time because he worked as a sailor on cargo ships, in keeping with the age-old ties of Cape Verdeans to the maritime trades.

This history may carry a familiar ring in Boston and southeastern New England, home to North America’s largest Cape Verdean concentration. But Souza’s music, which she brings to the area for the first time Saturday at Regattabar, mixes in some surprises.

On “Kachupada,” these include two keen takes on jazz classics: “Donna Lee,” a challenging tune attributed to both Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and “My Favorite Things,” the songbook standard, whose shopworn lyric she manages to infuse with a new, quirky energy. They follow her earlier cover of “Song for My Father,” the famous song by Horace Silver, who — little-known fact — was a first-generation Cape Verdean-American whose father was named John Tavares Silva.

Most striking of all is Souza’s voice itself. Alternately chirpy and grave, it’s an exceptional tool that she wields with an instrumentalist’s sensibility — she’s also a guitar and piano player — executing nimble turns and swoops with grace and acrobatic control.

For over a decade, Souza has forged her own idiosyncratic hybrid of jazz and Cape Verdean styles such as morna, coladeira, and batuque — themselves reflections of the archipelago’s exceptionally mixed European and African past.

“I explore Cape Verdean music mixed with jazz,” she says by phone from Lisbon. “I was studying about Cape Verdean music and found there are a lot of similarities with the songs in the [American] fields. There are the same scales, the same melodies. People think it’s far apart, but it’s really very close.”

Souza’s arrangements, developed with her long-time collaborator, the Portuguese bassist and composer Theo Pas’cal, explore the hypothesis from various angles.

Her “My Favorite Things,” inspired by John Coltrane’s version, employs a batuque rhythm while drawing from Coltrane the use of space and, arguably, a high vocal pitch reminiscent of his soprano saxophone. And she brings a jazz improviser’s curiosity to traditional genres, for instance, the morna — the melancholy style that many listeners will associate with Cesária Évora.

Souza’s experiments are finding favor among Cape Verdean music fans. Her interpretation of “6 on na Tarrafal,” the lament of a colonial-era political prisoner who is unjustly held in the Tarrafal prison camp, won best morna at the 2013 Cape Verde Music Awards, where she was also crowned best female vocalist.

“I was amazed to receive those two awards,” Souza says. “My music is quite different from what they are used to hearing, which is either very traditional or very commercial. You kind of wonder, how is my music going to be received? It’s an honor that they would consider me one of the representatives of the music and the culture.”

Souza says she is all the more humbled by the recognition as she took her first adult trip back to Cape Verde only three years ago. But with a larger Cape Verdean diaspora than there are inhabitants on the islands themselves, this community’s arts and culture have always grown in multiple locations at once.

Pas’cal, who met Souza when she auditioned for one of his bands and was taken by her unusual vocal ability, says he was already exposed to Cape Verdean music on the Lisbon scene at the time.

“I identified with this music so much that I got really interested in developing and exploring with Carmen,” he says. “To bring everyone a new and refreshed sound without missing the environment of Cape Verde. It’s been great to work with this culture — not only to learn the words but also the musical language of Cape Verdean Creole.”

A poignant moment on “Kachupada” occurs in the form of an interlude titled “Origem,” or “origin.” It features Souza and her father, Antonio, chatting and strumming an acoustic guitar.

“We’re in his living room, and he’s talking about old, traditional mornas and coladeiras, a lot of songs that you don’t hear anymore,” Souza says. “He’s talking about the poems and the stories behind them.”

It’s a moment layered with references, not only to Cape Verde’s cultural and musical past, but also, obliquely, to Horace Silver and his own attempts, in an earlier era, to integrate jazz and Cape Verdean roots in the form of “Song for My Father.”

“I read Horace Silver’s biography,” Souza says. “He explained he wanted to compose for his father, who supported everything he did as a musician.” Her own father, she says, worked hard at sea to support his family in the same way.

“I would only see him from time to time,” she says. “He made all that effort for us. I too made a lyric dedicated to my father, for everything I received from him.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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