20 years ago, Victor Tavares (aka Bitori) took his gaita- the diatonic accordion first brought to Cape Verde by the Portuguese- and laid down 8 tracks of smoking hot Funana grooves in a Rotterdam studio. The results ultimately rocked Santiago Island and the rest of the Cape Verde archipelago. And now those results, considered as good a recorded example of the style as any, driven by Bitori's accordion and underpinned by bass, percussion, and the constant metallic scrape of the ferrinhu, are seeing western release, leading to the always reluctant 79 year-old Bitori's decision to perform once again.
Funana is one of several rhythms specific to Santiago, and a musical style that was banned pre-independence, only becoming prominent in the late 1970s and 80s. It's likely modern, considering how many centuries ago the Portuguese first populated Cape Verde. So, like accordion and percussion-driven Cajun and creole music in Southwest Louisiana, ripsaw bands in Turks and Caicos, as well as similar styles in the Bahamas, this is 20th century stuff. Groove-wise, this record burns, and the rhythm section adds a buoyancy that lifts it from porches and streets and into clubs. Video of Bitori from 2016 onstage attests to the ability this music has to move asses. A listener with a sense of geography but no immediate sense of musical geography will hear the Caribbean. Or perhaps Mauritius and Reunion. It simply has the feel that comes from islands with colonial history and the imported, multi-cultural populations that get dragged to these places thanks to white people with endless amounts of arrogance and nerve. It's the sound of people who are themselves ethnic hybrids, snagging the instruments and even rhythms of the colonizers, marrying them with rhythms said colonizers would either ignore or do their best to banish. Yet, in the hands of people such as Bitori, who had to travel 8 days over the Atlantic Ocean from Santiago to Sao Tome and Principe so he could work for three years to acquire the savings to return home and buy a gaita, music becomes its own revolution. No wonder Funana is so infectious; it's been through hell.
Yet, long before Bitori finally recorded, something radical was happening to Funana, as well as other local grooves such as batuque and tabanka. Legend has it that a ship carrying what were in 1968 state of the art keyboard instruments from Baltimore harbor to Rio de Janeiro disappeared from radar and ended up on Sao Nicolau island, Cape Verde, where local folks marveled at this land-wrecked sight. The ship's contents were distributed to schools where there was electricity, so local kids could plug them in and immerse themselves in the magic Rhodes, Farfisas, Moogs, and Hammond organs might possess. The result, over the course of the next two decades, was an electric fusion, as the 2-beat funana groove got an update, and bands such as Os Apolos and Elisio and Voz de Cabo Verde gave the archipelago a then radical sound to compete with Haitian Kompas, Mauritian Sega, and French Caribbean Tumbele. In fact, this stuff not only rocked the entirety of Cape Verde, but founds it way back to Portugal as well as across the waters and into the Caribbean. One listen shows how organic this music's connection to the islands dotting the Americas is. There's the bristling disco of Fant Harvest's sung-in-English “That Day,” the synth-driven “Mino di Mama” by Quirino do Canto, and gaita player Joao Cirilo's decidedly psychedelic funana, “Po d'Terra.”
As is the case with Analogue Africa releases, tunes have been painstakingly distilled down to the cream, and both Space Echo and Bitori : Legend Of Funana have copious booklets with musical and geographic history, musician interviews, photos, and stories that truly bring the scenes to life. Of course, anyone who has decided that the two aforementioned releases aren't enough would do well to check out Ostinato records' sophomore release, Synthesize the Soul. This collection takes up where Space Echo leaves off, and features 18 tracks of classic, guitar and keyboard driven psychedelic funana. Yet, this is the music of the émigré, and as such, a number of the featured players here are from the Cape Verde diasporas in Paris, Rotterdam, Lisbon, and Boston, and so this collection does more than unlock a few more portentous dance tracks; it gives listeners one more historic hunk exposing how and why populations migrated and emphasizing how particular cultures have given the west its musical flair. In this case, infectious dance music from a chain of islands off the Senegalese coast made by people “harvested” from Europe and West Africa who had better things to do than serve their colonial overlords.
- Bruce Miller