A tribute to the legendary singer Cesária Évora, and a love letter to the breathtaking archipelago of Cape Verde
ward-winning vocalist, composer, and educator Kavita Shah’s latest album, Cape Verdean Blues, a culmination of a diasporic quest to find a spiritual home, will be released September 15, 2023 on the new global music label Folkalist Records. The carefully curated album of traditional Cape Verdean mornas and coladeiras is also a tribute to the charismatic and unapologetically individual Cape Verdean vocalist Cesária Évora, and a love letter to her breathtaking archipelago and its welcoming people. Resonating with the music’s language of loss, Shah, herself the daughter of immigrants, spent several years conducting ethnographic research on the island of São Vicente. On Cape Verdean Blues, Shah’s collaboration with Évora’s longtime bandmates (including master guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Bau), and her bold self-possession have enabled her to achieve a rare feat: creating a world music album that feels like home.
At the heart of the 12-song album is “sodade,” an idiomatic word that doesn’t have a strict English definition, but connotes a melancholy sense of transience that permeates Cape Verde, its music, and its free-spirited island population. “In this paradise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, I found a sense of home that has eluded me for much of my 37 years,” Shah says. She continues: “When I look back, I realize that upon hearing Cesária’s voice nearly a decade ago, she was summoning me down a path I must continue walking in search of sodade.”
Shah is a global citizen and cultural interlocutor whose work involves deep engagement with the jazz tradition, while also addressing and advancing its global sensibilities. She is a lifelong New Yorker of Indian origin hailed for possessing an “amazing dexterity for musical languages” (NPR). Shah speaks 9 languages—including Portuguese and Cape Verdean Kriol—and incorporates ethnographic research into her original music. She has researched traditional music practices in Brazil, West Africa, East Africa, Turkey, and India. To support her work, Shah has earned grants from the Jerome Foundation, Chamber Music America, Asian Cultural Council, and New Music USA. Shah holds a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Harvard, and a Master’s in Jazz Voice from Manhattan School of Music.
To date, Shah’s projects include Visions (2014), co-produced by Lionel Loueke; Folk Songs of Naboréa, which premiered at the Park Avenue Armory in 2017; and Interplay in duo with François Moutin, which was nominated in 2018 for France’s Victoires de la Musique for Jazz Album of the Year. Shah regularly performs her music at major concert halls, festivals, and clubs on six continents.
Shah first heard the voice of Cesária Évora as a 20-year-old college student in Cambridge, MA. Her father had died unexpectedly two years earlier, and three of her four grandparents had passed since his death. As an only child, these losses left her with very few tangible ties to her native culture. Months later, she was conducting ethnomusicology research on Afro-Brazilian music in Salvador, Brazil, where she began to see how marginalized people looked outside their environment to find connection. “They found solidarity with Black people’s plight during the American civil rights movement and liberation movements across the African continent,” Shah says. “As a member of a diaspora, I related to that. I began to seek to elevate my consciousness through connecting outside my immediate surroundings.”
While living in Brazil, Shah had the opportunity to hear Cesária perform live. “What struck me about her was that she was wholly herself. She was barefoot, smoking, drinking, she wasn’t overly smiling or entertaining—she was just delivering the songs,” Shah recalls. “As a person of color, to see a black woman whose main power was her authenticity was transformative. She changed my life.”
Shah ended up visiting Cape Verde in 2016—after Cesária’s death—and it would be a trip brimming with serendipitous events. Through mystical coincidence, she ended up befriending Cesária’s musical director and guitarist Bau. The pair instantly discovered an intuitive musical chemistry, and informal jam sessions led to live performances. In 2018, Shah returned to Cape Verde after being awarded a grant by the Jerome Foundation to formally research and study its music and culture. During this time, she deepened her friendship with Cape Verde’s legendary classical composer Vasco Martins who penned the Cape Verdean Blues compositions “Um Porta Aberte” and “Situações Triangulares.”
Cape Verdean Blues organically grew organically out of Shah and Bau’s casual studio sessions originally intended to document their repertoire. The album features members of Cesária’s band, including percussionist Miroca Paris, and Cesária’s mentee and acclaimed vocalist Fantcha. It was recorded in Mindelo, Lisbon, and New York, and includes traditional repertoire in Cape Verdean Kriol, a newly-penned original written to lyrics by another legend, Morgadinho, a Brazilian classic, and an Indian folk song in Gujarati, Shah’s mother tongue.
Shah painstakingly studied the repertoire’s distinctive phrasing, but she also invigorates the program of songs with fresh individuality. Trained as a jazz singer, Shah elegantly expands the songs with sensual vocal improvisations. She weaves in vocal textures, and mouth percussion creating lush, enchanting soundscapes with almost minimal orchestration. On the album’s title track— written by hard bop jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver (“Cape Verdean Blues”), whose dad was born on Cape Verde—she vocalizes the song’s instrumental parts.
Cesária was regarded as the “Queen of the Morna” (the heart-wrenching ballad-form named by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2019), and Shah salutes her legacy through exploring many beloved mornas on Cape Verdean Blues. On the ill-fated love morna, “Flor Di Nha Esperança,” over impressionistically melancholy guitar accompaniment featuring dazzling melodic flourishes, Shah makes the mournful melody her own through expressive phrasing, imbuing the song with a profound sense of loss that recalls the pathos of classic jazz balladeer vocalists. “That song took 4 years to get right—I felt like Cesária was trying to teach me something,” Shah shares. “I had to study her phrasing, but also unlock something in me to access all the losses I’ve endured in my personal life in the past few years.”
The smoldering arrangement of “Angola” features balmy vocals, mysterious guitar riffs, and gently rolling percussion that paints a sonic snapshot of the island paradise and its melancholy undertones. She personalizes the set with the inclusion of the playful Indian lullaby “Chaki Ben,” a song which she sang with her parents as a toddler; here it is set to the uplifting Cape Verdean sanjon rhythm and features special guest and Moroccan gnawa master Maalem Hassan Benjaafar on guembri and qraqeb. Cesária’s most famous song is “Sodade” which Shah recorded on her 2014 debut, Visions and adopted as a personal anthem. She revisits the song on Cape Verdean Blues accompanied by Bau, who played on the definitive recording. This Shah 2.0 version is a full-circle gesture, showcasing her honoring Cesária’s legacy while remaining true to her own artistic journey.
It’s been a profound sojourn in sodade for Shah as she’s found solace and support in the music of Cape Verde. “I have been through a lot of loss. It marks who I am,” she says. “But we can all relate to the fleetingness of life, that is universal. My hope for this album is that it brings people a sense of comfort—the same feeling I had when I first heard Cesária’s voice.”