Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mayra Andrade - Interview

Helen Brown interviews Mayra Andrade.
Closing her eyes and arching her neck backwards, the young Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade brings her palms to her collar bone and begins to beat out a rhythm from her home islands off the West Coast of Africa.

The "batuque" beat she is tapping into comes from a Cape Verdean dance - possibly used to promote bridal fertility - that was condemned as un-Christian by the Portuguese colonists.

Today the hypnotic polyrhythm has been reborn and reinterpreted in the now independent nation where 70% of the population are of mixed race and generations of emigration mean that women far outnumber men.

Tonight's polite and exclusively white audience at the Besancon musical festival in Eastern France close their eyes with Mayra Andrade, nod their heads and tune in as her lovely voice washes over them.

She sings songs of brave women calling fishermen in from the rough waves of the Atlantic, of love and loss and time passing in weathered isolation. There's a guttural oomph that reminds me of 1970s jazz singer Marlena Shaw.

As Andrade's arms widen, flail and sway to encompass the sense of ocean and emotion, her strapless dress nearly slips from her breasts, and a Frenchwoman in the front row throws up a pashmina to cover her.

When I sat on the balcony of her little hotel room earlier in the afternoon, 26 year old Andrade was every inch the chic chanteuse. Black suited and high chinned she told me of her childhood.

"Nobody in my family was musical. My father was in the military – which is how I came to be born in Cuba. My mother had a difficult pregnancy and the medical care was better there, and because of the good relations between our countries he arranged for her to give birth there. But back in Cape Verde she made my cousin my godfather and he played guitar: jazz standards and Brazilian music. The first song I remember singing was Caetano Veloso's ""O Le√£ozinho" about the little lion. I'm an unconditional fan of Veloso. I love every thing he does."

By the time she reached her late teens, Andrade realized she "was always singing, performing" and wanted to do something within the Cape Verdean tradition. At that time she met Orlando Pantera, a composer who was exploring the local fusion of Portuguese and African beats that had fallen out of fashion.

"He was adding more harmonies, richer melodies and poetry" to the passionate batuque beat traditionally rapped out by Santiagoan washerwomen on the cloth bundles (tchabeta) held in their laps.

"He had the courage to break into new territory and made Cape Verdean music more attractive to younger people," she says, batting those beats out onto her crisply pressed black trousers for me.

Pantera died, aged just 33, back in 2001.

"At the time of his death," she says, "he had only just begun to be well known, so I started to sing his songs, along with a few other young Cape Verdeans, to carry on the legacy. It was too great to die with him."

Some of his lyrics are rather amusing, I say, referencing one of several Pantera compositions on Andrade's seductive debut album, "Navega" (2006), called "Accroche a Toi" (Stuck on You).

"You went out of your way to get away from me," run the lyrics, "You walked in cowpats and the farmer's dog bit your behind/ You found another boyfriend to put me off/ You sorely criticised me/ You rubbed my nose in cat's mess/ And you served me a soup of locust wings/ But in spite of everything I'm still stuck on you, ha ha ha."

Andrade nods and smiles in recollection of her "small, intense friendship" with Pantera, but her brow creases: "He used his suffering to make a funny song."

The band with which Andrade performs in France (where she has lived since 2003) and who will appear with her on stage at London's Barbican on Friday night are all Brazilian. She acknowledges the difficulties of teaching them Cape Verdean musical metre.

"We are brothers in one way but… in Brazil a beat might be X, to us its Y. If you were to make a diagram the bass would be here not there, the vocal would be…" she sings a difference near imperceptible to me. "It was difficult for me at first, like having a story to tell in a different language. But gradually they are getting closer to the authentic Cape Verdean vernacular. I have been playing them Cape Verdean music."

The last thing I want to discuss with Andrade is the ferro she plays on stage. A long metal stick, pressed into the shoulder and scraped percussively with a shining knife. "I see it as a kind of power the traditional Cape Verdean women had, with this instrument, with the batuque. If you ask them they will say 'I have these problems: the men, the money, the children…. But with this, the music, I put down the problems'. With me… sometimes when I sing I feel I leave my body."

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