We met with Carmen Souza, who is a singer, composer and lyrics writer from Cape Verde, in Lisbon to talk about her new album ‘Silver Messengers’ 5 days after the album’s release on the 25th of October, 2019. We talked about the reflection of her multi-cultural identity in her music and about her latest album which she dedicated to Horace Silver.
First of all, thank you for accepting my invitation. Silver Messengers album was just recently released and you honored me by sparing your time. Let’s start by talking about your life before we proceed to talking about your album. You were born to a family from Cape Verde. This affected your emotions and musical identity due to your cultural and national identity, or maybe let’s not call it national identity but your cultural heritage. You represent your culture from the heart effectively. Could you tell us about how you feel about your identity and your culture?
This is really interesting because I am very proud to represent my culture. I think our culture is very rich. Because I grew up with a family from Cape Verde while being born here. As you know, there are many colonies in Portugal; people from Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique. Therefore you constantly feed upon these musics, languages and forms of existence. This situation provides an expression for my own music as well. Because it is important that all these countries speak the same language. There are differences between musical and fundamental ways of living, and that makes me really happy and emotional because this situation stems from my roots and the music I grew up listening to.
I learnt that you were heavily influenced by the ‘Saudade’ concept. This must be because of your father, he needed to sail out to the sea frequently.
He worked on freight ships. It was funny, we would joke among ourselves; because there isn’t a pool of water that he didn’t visit. I would tell him ‘Did you know, I was in Istanbul’ and he would say ‘Ah, really, I have been there many times in the 1970s’. He knew all the places. I had started to travel and experience these very same thing when he quit working and came home. And it was always very interesting to share these experiences with him. Because he would go on trips for a long time, sometimes up to 11 months, when I was growing up. He would come back for a month and then would be back at it. This was a really tough life. Of course it was tough but the experience he gathered through different people, different cultures and different languages was really beautiful despite the hardships of his job.
And all this came together and made you who you are. Even though we say Wikipedia is not a reliable source, it was written there that your family moved to Lisbon after the Carnation Revolution.
No, they moved before that. I believe my mother came here in 1972. They got married in 1975 with my father travelling back and forth.
Therefore we cannot say that the revolution period had a direct effect on you. You were born in 1981.
Yes 81. I was born 6 years after the revolution. I remember my family, especially my mother, talking about the tension in the streets those days. They were told to go home due to the revolution. She didn’t live in Lisbon back then. She was on the other side of the river. The revolution was directly situated here. But that’s all I know. This was a free country already when I was born.
Many prominent musicians influenced you, we can name many of them. Ella, Billie, Nina Simone, Theo Pascal, and Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Bill Evans on the other hand, etc. etc. Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock. These are all legendary figures, legendary personalities but they are all very different in their musical identities. How did you combine them all and melt them in your pot?
All these musicians you mentioned have a common point and that is the fact that they aren’t afraid to take risks and being open to them. The same applies to any danger that might come along… and they have the utmost respect to their work and their own voices. They understand that notion. I think this is very easy when my vision is concerned. Because I can feel them talking to me like a teacher while influencing me. But I also follow my own voice while taking advantage of their guidance. I like to use my voice and music in different ways. I like combining different things and Cape Verdian rhythms with jazz. You always have a reference point when you start out as a musician but you make your own choices. You make mistakes on the way, then you get up, shake it off and continue by making music your life. That’s what I do because I think they are connected. I think life is a great influence on my music.
You also write lyrics but I am not sure if calling them merely lyrics would be enough. I can show your essay on Horace Silver in the album booklet as an example to call you a writer. I really liked it. It is creative, artistic and sincere. That is evident. That is why I want to ask this, are there any other people you take as a reference, for example literary figures, other than musicians?
I don’t think so. Because music constitutes a big part of my life. I see everything as influences within music. I don’t know. I read a lot of biographies. Musicians’ biographies. I read Bob Dylan’s biography recently. I am currently reading Wayne Shorter’s biography. It is really influential to understand how they view music. So are their musical experiences in their own eras. Because those were completely different times back then. Maybe a harder time. I also gather a lot of experience from the Bible. That’s where most of my references lie in.
Then let’s continue with Theo Pascal. He discovers your talent and presents you to jazz. It must have been about 14 years ago.
2001 I believe. Almost 18 years.
That was 18 years ago but your first album was released in 2005, right? It was an album that brought together African music, Cape Verdian rhythms and contemporary jazz. What kind of an experience was it to release that first album and Pascal discovered you while he was one of your biggest influences in the meanwhile. Could you talk a bit about those days please?
There was an exam open for the public then. I was singing a lot. And I had a great interest in singing. I entered the exam. They chose me and that’s how we started working together. I saw within years that he was serious about working with me. He takes music very seriously. Sometimes clues given by an outsider affects the way you make decisions. And I am so happy I had that. I made that decision. We started to work together. We started to develop things together and I dedicated myself to my instrument more. Because I hadn’t focused on an instrument seriously until then. I focused on the guitar and the piano. I started to compose with the guitar. That 2005 album was the moment of discovery for me. Things started happening. My first concert was outside Portugal and I was really excited. It was in Womad in Redding. It was really incredible because I never had such an experience before. It was a full experience and I was really nervous. Therefore it is an important part of my history… I am so happy that he has been my mentor for so many years and I keep learning through him. And I keep trying to improve this sound. As you see, we have such a place as well, we can improve ourselves. We have all kinds of instruments here. We are passionate about vintage instruments. Naturally vintage instruments have their own sound and character. You have to find your own sound within that instrument. And this is very nurturing for us. We want to discover other forms of art as well. Drawings made with music and such… We also have a new project called ‘While I Wait Lisbon’. It takes its inspiration from Lisbon as a city. It includes Theo Pascal on the double bass, Zoe Pascal on the drums, Lenny Sendersky on the sax and the flute and me on the vocals. It is like poetry accompanied by music. We also have a painter. He paints while we perform.
I am sorry to interrupt but are you currently working on this project?
Yes. It was recently finished. Now we are promoting it in venues, letting people know. It has a completely different perspective. Because I don’t sing. It is a literary project; there is vocal expression and improvization. I read poems and speech doesn’t end.
You recorded your second album Verdade after a while and you achieve a great success. Because it isn’t merely a second album. What was that threshold between your first and second albums?
I knew they were different, it was an initial evolution. We experienced different things in the first album. Different things after moving to London. That period was between the first and second albums. That album was more singer-trubador style. There was a lot of guitar and African rhythms. It was a step ahead. I always say that I leave a small gap for the next album. Therefore it got incredible feedback and was readily accepted. We went to Asia and even Turkey during that period.
You focused more on your vocal character in the third album. It received overwhelmingly positive feedback from unexpected sources such as NPR. Did you plan your career step by step or was it just the flow of life?
Everything happened naturally. I accepted everything as they happened to me. You find yourself focal points to improve yourself with as a musician. For example, my aim was to develop things with the guitar. I started to really play the guitar and I was interested in the sound I made with it. My focus then shifted to other things and I started to work on my voice. I tried to train my voice for jazz, jazz elements, improvization with musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. There was always an evolution. There has always been other things that I wanted to discover in the next album. As you said, these were all steps. When you look at the history of that album, yes, I remember these. I expressed my music in such a way…
Is it accurate to show you as Cesaria Evora’s legacy? Would you accept a claim like she was the diva of your country, or the queen, or whatever, and that you are following in her path or do you think you have other responsibilities wih your musical identity?
Cesaria is very important for Cape Verde. Because she lived for Cape Verde. People wouldn’t really know about Cape Verde if it wasn’t for Cesaria. Everyone started to ask about where this country was, where did this voice come from, after her. Cape Verde started to be known for its music, and music was its biggest export… I believe everyone has such a responsibility. But I don’t think my music has anything to do with Cesaria’s. She made only Cape Verdian music. I cannot call anything pure today because there is such a thing as globalization. There are a lot of influences coming in from everywhere. Maybe there wasn’t globalization in her time but she did a lot with Cuban music, Senegalian musicians and with musicians from all over the world. Therefore music is music and it is international. But I am lucky that they see me as one of her followers. I also have to find my own way on the other hand. Just like she did. She is Cesaria Evora and I am Carmen Souza.
I think you have a very different style, it has nothing to do with hers.
Yes, they are different universes. Because I grew up in a different era, with different conditions and in a different country. I make Cape Verdian music as the music of my parents but I never lived there. She did. So we are completely different even though we both share the same love and pride for our country…
We don’t have to compare and contrast people anyways.
Yes but the sector always does this. Once someone disappears from sight, another is inevitably put in their place. People cannot be replaced like this. One has a place in the world, the other has a different place and goals. Everything is about goals.
Yes, now about Horace Silver. How did he influence you? When did you first listen to him and how did you feel about him?
Theo was the first one to talk about him. He mentioned that he had roots in Cape Verde and that he played jazz. And I was really surprised when I started to listen to jazz a lot, thinking ‘Wow he is Cape Verdian’ but he was making an entirely different type of music from what you’d expect from such a musician. But I know there are other musicians like this who have roots in Cape Verde. It all changes when they go to the United States because there were a lot of Cape Verdians around during the time I spent in Los Angeles. They said they had to change their names while dealing with official papers. Because things get solved much easier that way on the government’s side. You become Horace Silver instead of Horacio Silva or John Tavar instead of Joao Tavares… Otherwise things might get complicated. They can misspell your name. And the process might be rejected if there are discrepancies between the way your name is spelled or similar. They were all telling me about this. If you don’t have a community around you that values traditions and the Creole language which is almost forgotten, it is highly possible for generations to come here and forget everything. Therefore I started to listen to Horace Silver and learn about the things he has done. His father is from the Mayo Islands. I don’t think he has ever been to Cape Verde but he would meet with his father’s Cape Verdian friends and make music on Sunday evenings. That’s how he was connected to Cape Verdian music. It is possible to hear this in his music, for example in ‘Song for my Father’ or ‘Capo Verde Blues’. They would have he had a different kind of swing because Cape Verde wasn’t well known back then. He was known as a different kind of pianist this way. That’s the time of legendary musicians like Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. He has a very specific swing and his own way of interpretation. That’s his Cape Verdian side. I started to listen to him more and more. Then I decided it was the time for Silver Messengers.
And Silver Messengers… Theo Pascal plays the electric bass and double bass. Elias KaKomanolis plays the drums. Is he Greek?
He was born in Mozambique but has many different roots. A bit from Greece, a bit from China, from India; his family is completely mixed.
And we see Benjamin Burrell on the piano. This quartet or band, how did it come together and went on?
I knew Elias from before. We have worked a lot with one another in Portugal. Then we all moved to the UK. We moved to London and he moved to Manchester. We lost contact now and then. Because we went in different directions. We started working together again when I learnt that Elias was in the UK, about six or seven years ago. Then he moved to London as well. That way we all were close to one another. Pianist Ben Burrell’s roots go back to Jamaica. You know, there are a lot of people with different roots in London. I believe I started to work with Ben fours years ago. We stopped for a while and then continued. Such things happen in life, you know. He went to Valencia to make film music in the meanwhile
When did you start to work on the album? How did you pick the pieces? I can guess it was a long process but can you at least give a summary…
Yes it was rather long. Because Horace Silver composed a lot of music. And choosing them was really hard. We sat down and we chose the ones which we thought conveyed his message the best. For example, that incredible ‘Soul Searching’. Or pieces which spoke to us… We wrote them down right away, like ‘Senior Blues’. Because it is a beautiful Horace Silver piece. That’s how we started. The repertoire was picked in time. We completed the process of rehearsing at the studio. This became one of our newest projects. That’s why it has a very special taste. This album actually is different in a lot of aspects.
The album was released on the 25th of October. You received great feedback already. I saw a very positive critique on Downbeat. Life is life, of course we don’t know what will happen but what are your expectations from the upcoming months and plans, as the saying goes?
A lot of specific dates are approaching. That means a lot of travelling and that’s great. I look forward to playing this music and I am very excited. Things surface as you play the music. Music evolves. The main idea of this album was to bring the works of Horace Silver, an incredible composer and a great influence on many musicians, to light. I think he never received the attention he deserves. Real fame. Of course, he is known worldwide but he left a great mark in jazz history. Therefore I hope to reach people, who don’t know Horace Silver or know of his Cape Verdian roots, with this album. This is really happy and rewarding for us but it will also bring some challenges. New albums always have their own challenges. There is a saying that you do everything from scratch when you make a new album. This is intersting and it helps is improve. There are no certainties in life as you said. There are no guarantees in music. I hope a great time waits ahead of us.