Friday, May 22, 2009

Maria de Barros: Interview

The vast distance between the Old World and the new isn't merely a matter of miles. Immigrant communities can share the language, music and customs of their homeland, but the harsh realities of the old country often start to fade as people put down roots in the United States. Listening to the buoyant, often celebratory music of Los Angeles-based Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros and the ache-filled mornas of her famous godmother, Cesaria Evora, it's clear that while the two artists are united by a common culture, America's affluence and West Africa's poverty have set their music on divergent paths.

"Cesaria's life is a morna," de Barros says, referring to the blueslike musical form popular in Cape Verde's bars and cantinas. "This is someone who has suffered a lot, and now, thank God, she has been given everything she merits. My life is a completely different picture than hers."

De Barros celebrates the release of her gorgeous new album Morabeza with a series of Northern California gigs, including a Zookbeat concert at Don Quixote's this Tuesday and a show at the Big Sur Spirit Garden on Saturday, May 30. It was Evora who introduced the world to the music of Cape Verde in the early 1990s with her ineffably graceful, minor-key songs describing lives of hardship, heartbreak and anguished longing for absent loved ones. The morna is much like the blues in its heroic transcendence of hard times, but strongly inflected by the rhythms and cadences of West Africa, Brazil and Portugal, the colonial power in Cape Verde until 1975.

Endemic poverty on the island nation off the coast of Senegal has forced generations of Cape Verdeans to seek work far from home. One of the largest expatriate settlements is in Rhode Island, which is where de Barros settled with her family as a child. Born in Senegal and raised in Mauritania, she moved with her parents to Providence at the age of 11, joining a thriving, close-knit community.

She struck up a close friendship with Evora on a trip back to Cape Verde in 1988. When people asked if de Barros was the great singer's daughter, "She finally said, 'You know what? I'm your godmother,'" de Barros says. "'You baptize children and you never know how they come out. If I had to choose a godchild, I would choose someone like you. I know exactly how you are.'"
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