Singer Maria De Barros keeps Cape Verde close through her music. She appears at Seattle's Triple Door Thursday, May 28.
Growing up in a tight-knit Cape Verdean community in Rhode Island, Maria De Barros always felt closely connected to her ancestral homeland.
After centuries of famine-induced immigration from the West African archipelago 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verdean culture thrives in a widely dispersed diaspora, and with the release of her acclaimed 2003 album “Nha Mundo” (Narada World), De Barros proudly became the first Cape Verdean-American singer signed by an American record label.
But De Barros didn’t realize that the affection was reciprocal until she returned to the birthplace of her parents in 2006, a life-changing experience that inspired her gorgeous new CD “Morabeza” (Sheer Group). Powered by accordion and four-string cavaquinho, a ukulele-like instrument with percussive attack, De Barros’ Afro-Caribbean-inflected album is a love letter to the land that eagerly claimed her as a long-lost daughter.
“I was not born there, and to have my people come and make me feel what I have always felt in my heart, that I am Cape Verdean, was so powerful,” says De Barros, who performs at the Triple Door on Thursday. ” ‘Morabeza’ means an expression of solidarity in hard times, kindness, hospitality and friendship, and that’s what they showed me, the soul and spirit of my people.”
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In many ways, the story of the De Barros family embodies Cape Verde’s sad history of displacement. Born in Senegal and raised in Mauritania, she moved with her parents to Providence, R.I., at the age of 11, joining a well-established community. She started singing at weddings and celebrations in high school “performing every weekend at Cape Verdean functions,” De Barros says. “I was very thankful for that. My parents wanted to make sure we kept our roots, and that we’d be proud of where we came from.”
Moving to Los Angeles in the early ’90s with her husband Mel Wilson Jr., a bassist with Toots and the Maytals, De Barros for the first time found herself cut off from Cape Verdean culture. Gravitating to the city’s thriving Latin music scene, she sang boleros and rancheras in Spanish. But after several years working with veteran Latin music producer Daniel Luchansky, De Barros’ Spanish-language project never jelled and she heeded his advice to return to her roots.
“He would always tell me, ‘You need to do the Cape Verdean music, that’s you,’ ” De Barros says. “Finally I said to Danny, ‘I’m ready to go back to my roots, let’s do it.’ “
The world had only recently discovered the impoverished nation’s musical riches through the blues-like mornas of Cesaria Evora. Describing lives of hardship and anguished longing for absent loved ones, her ineffably graceful, minor-key songs are strongly colored by the rhythms and cadences of West Africa, Brazil and Portugal, the colonial power in Cape Verde until 1975.
De Barros has focused on more upbeat forms, from reggae and samba to bossa novas and coladeiras, a sprightly Cape Verdean dance rhythm. Singing mostly in the Cape Verdean creole language of Criolu, which blends Portuguese with West African languages, she is fully in command of her her cool, lustrous vocals.
“Cesaria’s life is a morna,” De Barros says. “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 U.S. 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.”
Andrew Gilbert: firstname.lastname@example.org