Words: Dominic Valvona
Bitori ‘Legend of Funaná – The Forbidden Music Of The Cape Verde Islands’
Released by Analog Africa
Following the recent summertime thrills aplenty Space Echo – The Mystery Behind The Cosmic Sound Of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed compilation, with the emphasis on the Funaná; Analog Africa continues to pay homage to the previously suppressed music genre with a reissue of, what many consider, the best Funaná album ever recorded, Bitori Nha Bibinha.
A master class from the inter-generational Cape Verde duo of singer Chando Graciosa and renowned gaïta maestro Victor Tavares (better known as Bitori), who’d both grown up with the blazing and often salacious Funaná, waited a long time before recording their acclaimed album; finally sealing the deal and entering the studio in 1997, with Bitori now fast approaching his sixties.
Though Funaná’s infectious quick-step is due to the driving percussive rhythm of the kitchen knife scrapped iron rod, christened the ‘ferro’ or ‘ferrinho’ by the islanders, it’s the bellowed dizzying sway and short concertinaed melodies and lead of the gaïta that gives the genre its signature sound. Originally brought over to their West African colony in the early 1900s by the Portuguese, the gaïta is a diatonal accordion, adopted by the Cape Verdeans and made their own. Spreading from the Santiago capital, it lent a continental swing and lilt to the traditional rhythms of Africa. But the authorities weren’t keen on this adoption, especially as Funaná became the protest music of Cape Verde’s most poor and displaced. Earnest but the most soulful and hopeful of all styles, Funaná was used as a vessel to proudly announce one’s heritage. Even when lamenting or in a more serene mood, it is always fast moving and energetic, surviving the staunch Catholic rule of Portugal with aplomb. Banned until the mid 1970s, musicians were flung into prison and tortured for playing it. One of the tragedies, but at least giving a wider international voice to the plight, was the diaspora that resulted from this hard-lined authoritarianism. Huge swathes of the native population, forced out because of oppression and poverty, moved throughout the globe, with many setting up in the colonial masters own backyard, usually Lisbon, and others moving north to Rotterdam.
Finally gaining independence in 1975, with the ban thankfully lifted but still little sympathy for the former suppressed genre from the new government, Funaná could at last be set free and promoted without fear. Analog Africa’s Space Echoes collection reflects how Cape Verde’s musical community embraced and endorsed it. Bitori and Graciosa raw impassioned, and as you’ll hear yourself, incessant ennui template would prove the most impressive. Originally coaxing Bitori, already a veteran and legend, out of his stupor semi-retirement, the young multi-talented vocalist from Tarrafal convinced his erstwhile accordionist idol to both tour and record with him. Many travails and anecdotes accompany this tale (which you can read in the album’s accompanying booklet), but the resulting album of eight songs would go onto cement this meeting of impressive Funaná musicians for posterity.
A self-taught accordionist, Bitori’s suffused technique is produced by handling the left side of the accordion – the “8 baixos”, the 8 low frequency keys – in a unique idiosyncratic manner. Squeezing out a swaying intoxication of colourful Cape Verdean beachside and rural backwater melodies and dizzy European boulevard waltzes, his poetic riffs reflect the pace and hedonism of the islands disposed. Graciosa meanwhile is loudly forthright, singing, hollering and bird calling over the staccato percussion. Though the central instrumentation is kept at a similar pitch and delivery, nuances suggest both Franco (‘Rabelado’) and Latin America (‘Cabalo’) flavours. This isn’t surprising considering the trading route position of Cape Verde and the cultural exchanges over the centuries between the continents.
Still on tour, the Bitori showcase continues on its way around Europe, reviving the Funaná phenomenon. Bitori Nha Bibinha is every bit the soundtrack to the summer of 2016 as its predecessor.