Graded on a Curve: Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica From the Cape Verde Islands 1973 – 1988

In times of crisis and intolerance, one can look to art for a corrective. Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica From the Cape Verde Islands 1973 – 1988 is the story of immigration, of musicians gaining access to previously unavailable instruments and recording studios, of the blend of tradition and innovation, and of the cultural exchange that ensued. The 18 tracks that comprise the set offer an energetic, enlightening listen as the whole helps to slay the bogeymen of closed-border narrowmindedness; it’s out on CD and 140gm 2LP with gatefold jacket and 20-page booklet on February 24 through Ostinato Records.

The island nation of Cape Verde didn’t gain its independence from Portuguese colonial rule until July 5, 1975, the date falling after the years covered by this set and underscoring the political and economic uncertainty that sent thousands of Cape Verdeans migrating to various cities across Europe and beyond. Naturally, music accompanied the movement, and as Ostinato’s generous promo text explains, the songs initially intended merely for the enjoyment and rejuvenation of countrymen began to sway others, first in Napoli, then Rome, and later in Lisbon, Paris, Rotterdam, and Boston.

Synthesize the Soul is only Ostinato’s second release, though it follows promptly on the heels of June 2016’s Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz, & Electric Folklore from Haiti 1960 – 1981. Importantly, both are loaded with info that illuminates the circumstances leading to the music’s creation and reinforcing the label’s efforts as far surpassing those of fast-buck reissue enterprises.

Alongside the documentation of a country and culture in transition is another chapter in the growth of electronic instruments during the late 20th century. This informative wrinkle gets immediately underway with Nhú De Ped´Bia’s “Nós Criola,” is early seconds brandishing a fluttering, shortwave radio-esque synth. But more crucially, the meat of the track is organic rhythm, clean guitar, keyboard spice, and unperturbed vocals, the objective clearly to get bodies dancing but with the emphasis on finesse rather than grit or unharnessed energy.

“Nanda,” the first of two selections from Pedrinho, is more urgent, spilling out hand percussion and swirling keyboard amid diligent strumming, spirited singing and what sounds like a programmed rhythm. Later, in the instrumental midsection, guitar and synth solos mingle, and even further in, a stop-start section underlines the togetherness of the unfurling sound.

Like much of Synthesize the Soul’s contents, the lively “Corpo Limpo” by Tulipa Negra is derived from Funaná, a style that along with Batuku has its origins in the Cape Verdean island of Santiago (the roots of both go back even deeper to Guinea-Bissau on the African mainland). As catchy and layered as it is vibrant, it coheres with the other Funaná and Batuku informed selections as the composing, arranging, and instrumental skills of Paulino Vieira, his input impacting at least half of this compilation, brings additional unity across the set.

But there’s also diversity; the Paris-based Manuel Gomes’ “Jelivrà Bo Situaçon” cultivates a disco-ish vibe, the mood extending to “Dança Dança T’Manche,” though as the cut progresses Val Xalino’s conversational vocal style (apparent even with the language barrier) and sturdy guitar add distinguishing characteristics.

Guitar funkiness and a bold horn section help Jovino Dos Santos’ “Bo Ta Cool” to stand out, while Abel Lima’s “Farmacia” is a deft pace-shifter, its most emphatic passages lining up with the singer’s socially conscious lyrics. And Elisio Gomes & Joachim Varela’s “Chump Lopes,” a Paulino Vieira production, is amongst the more contemporary sounding cuts here, it’s drum machine hurling out the beat as if racing to the finish line. Complicating the newness is a synth tone imitating the Cape Verdean accordion.

Although his style is an extension of Funaná, Tchiss Lopes’ “É Bô Problema” reminds this correspondent of mainland Afrobeat, perhaps due to the cyclical keyboard. And here as throughout the disc there’s nary an inhibition over blending then novel electronics with standard instrumentation, with the cascading keys, horn wiggle, and accordion tones elevating Americo Brito’s “Babylon 79” to standout status.

It contrasts well with the electro-horn fanfares and Euro-disco shadings of José Casimiro’s “Djozinho Cabral,” which in turn leads into the decidedly more trad-leaning “Posse Bronck.” Dating from 1973, the roots move is no surprise, with the cut helping to launch the career of politically-minded singer Nho Balta. After years in Europe, today he resides in the US.

Synthesize the Soul’s non-chronological approach allows “Posse Bronck” to effectively flow into the full-bodied instrumental party of Kola’s “Lameirao,” which offers a delicious Funaná groove and killer tandem vocalizing plus guitars riffing and then soloing in a psych-tinged back-and-forth with the keyboards and horns. Anybody with a love for African sounds should dig it.

It gains strength by embracing the sonic melting-pot; Kola was clearly and openly impacted by the rock and fusion of the ’70s, and the track’s placement between the trad “Posse Bronck” and the lineup-shifting, pop-inclined but still quite pleasant (and interestingly instrumental) “Nova Coladeira” by Cabo Verde Show instructively sequences the multiplicity of ambitions corralled here.

“Melhor Futuro” by Tam Tam 2000 is a well-oiled machine of band interaction, though it’s energy is a smidge more refined than Pedrinho’s second appearance “Chema”; this writer finds the latter slightly preferable. Dionisio Maio’s “Mie Fogo” wields a sophisto-leaning vocal orientation, a glistening guitar pattern, rudimentary synth and gusts of clarinet, again contrasting with the more direct singing approach and confident full-band flow of Bana’s “Canta Cu Alma Magoada.”

In terms of discographical output Bana is ranked as the most successful Cape Verdean musician. Hearing him close Synthesize the Soul, it’s not a bit difficult to understand why. But the entire set is noted for its high level of musicianship as it sheds valuable light on the mixture of roots and modernity fueled by immigration. Two records in and Ostinato’s track record is downright sterling.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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