Immigrant communities may retain the language, music, and customs of their homeland, but the harsh realities of the old country often fade as people put down roots in the United States. Listening to the buoyant, often celebratory songs of Los Angeles-based Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros and the ache-filled music of her famous godmother, Cesaria Evora, it's clear that while they're united by a common culture, America's affluence and West Africa's poverty have set their sounds on divergent paths.
"Cesaria's life is a morna," de Barros says during a phone conversation from Los Angeles, referring to the blueslike musical form popular in Cape Verde's bars and cantinas. "She 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. I came to the US and I had a wonderful life here, so I can't only be singing mornas. I wanted to show people the other side of Cape Verde."
De Barros performs at Scullers on Wednesday as part of a Cape Verdean Music Festival, sharing the bill with Tito Paris, a gifted Cape Verdean guitarist, arranger, and songwriter now based in Portugal who has collaborated with revered Cape Verdean performers such as Bana and Evora. In 2003, de Barros became the first American Cape Verdean artist signed to a major label.It was Evora who introduced the world to Cape Verdean music in the early 1990s, with her ineffably graceful, minor-key mornas describing lives of hardship, heartbreak, and longing for absent loved ones.
In the early '90s, de Barros and her husband, bassist Mel Wilson Jr., moved to Los Angeles. At the time, he was playing with reggae pioneer Toots and the Maytals and was coaxed to LA to perform with Cuban-born singer/actor Steve Bauer, best known as Al Pacino's sidekick in "Scarface." Without a Cape Verdean community to plug into, de Barros gravitated toward Southern California's thriving Mexican music scene, singing boleros and rancheras in Spanish. She hooked up with producer Daniel Luchansky and spent several years on a Spanish-language album; when it didn't jell, she heeded his advice to explore her roots.
The result was her 2003 debut "Nha Mundo: Music of Cabo Verde," on Narada World (a jazz/world music label owned by Virgin Records), a seductive album featuring an array of appealing grooves, from reggae and samba to bossa nova and coladeira, a sprightly Cape Verdean dance rhythm. Singing mostly in the Cape Verdean Creole language of Criolu, which blends Portuguese with West African languages, she effortlessly communicates joy and pleasure with her cool, lustrous voice, whether one understands the lyrics or not.
Her music has spread even further via Putumayo, the world music label that has transformed the way international pop and roots music is presented and distributed in the US. "Riberonzinha," the first track of "Nha Mundo," is featured on the Putumayo compilation "World Reggae," and the song "Mi Nada Um Ca Tem" has gained widespread notice as part of last year's popular "Women of Africa" CD.
Dan Storper, Putumayo's founder and CEO, notes that de Barros's presence on the two compilations has provoked a considerable reaction.
"We've received more positive comments about her songs than any others," he writes in an e-mail. "She has a beautiful voice, exquisite phrasing, and is a talented songwriter."
De Barros's second CD, "Danca Ma Mi," is slated for release on Narada World next month. She celebrates the release March 26 at Venus de Milo in Swansea. For her performance this week at Scullers, she'll perform with her working band, featuring mostly Cape Verdean musicians, and focus on material from her first album.
De Barros hopes her upbeat music will introduce the world to a different perspective on the little-known West African nation.
"We have music in our lives all the time, and for me music is celebration," de Barros says. "It's not just the mornas, where we talk about sadness and our romantic lives. We're also about coladeiras, about having fun and dancing. You're partying all night long. You should go, you'll see, you'll come back needing a vacation."
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.