Graded on a Curve:
Pour Me a Grog:
The Funaná Revolt
in 1990s Cabo Verde

Ostinato Records’ impact on retrospective global music discovery has been major. Founded and operated by Vik Sohonie, the label’s initial mark was made through an extensive dive into Haitian sounds followed with equally broad coverage of Somalian and Sudanese music. But recently, the focus has tightened onto short, sweet illuminations of late 20th century developments in Cabo Verdean stuff; the latest is Pour Me a Grog: The Funaná Revolt in 1990s Cabo Verde, which spotlights a wildly rhythmic and accordion-driven generational advancement in the Funaná style with conciseness magnifying the vitality. It’s out October 25 on LP with a 12-pg 12-inch booklet and CD hardcover bookcase with a 20-page booklet.

Grog might put one in mind of pirates, but the term is something of a catchall for certain types of distilled booze, in the case here, a “Cabo Verdean moonshine distilled from sugarcane crushed by bulls.” Alright. Ostinato sum up their informative promo text with advice, specifically to get a glass of grog and “imbibe responsibly, listen carefully, and dance recklessly.” After soaking up the eight selections comprising this set, that recommendation makes total sense.

Ostinato’s journey into the music of Cabo Verde began in 2017 with Synthesize the Soul: Astro​-​Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands, an 18-track compilation (reviewed in full in this column) documenting the output of the young country’s immigrants as they travelled into Europe (Portugal, France, The Netherlands) and the USA (with Boston given a point of distinction).

Synthesize the Soul’s ample selection was enhanced through diversity, but for the label’s subsequent Cabo Verdean inspections, which began in June of this year with Grupo Pilon: Leite Quente Funaná de Cabo Verde, Ostinato is significantly abbreviating the aural tours, though they are ultimately no less enlightening as a complete package.

The prior volume’s title situates Pilon as a group (as their music is hot, I’ll call them a band), and one based in Luxembourg in the second half of the ’80s, where they eventually cut three albums; Leite Quente offers six cuts from those releases, which might seem skimpy but to my ears is just the right taste, as stylistic variation wasn’t high on Pilon’s list of priorities.

This is not a putdown in the slightest, but rather a reflection that Pilon’s music was made with a specific audience and set of priorities in mind. These circumstances are shared with Pour Me a Grog, even as this latest installment is an overview of various artists. Derived from Columbian Cumbia, Cabo Verdean Funaná is a dance music, both in the hardcore root style that emerged under mid-20th century colonial rule (where it was hidden from the Portuguese authorities) and in the subsequent advancements post-independence where it was prominent at music festivals and as a tool of political messaging and rallies.

Pour Me a Grog represents further progressions, as younger practitioners of the Funaná accordion, or as it is called in Cabo Verde, the gaita, became dissatisfied with the perceived mainstream movement of the style; anyone even moderately familiar with the general trajectory of modern music should recognize this type dissatisfaction as a common one across decades, genres and borders.

The cool thing here is how the musicians were taking a big collective jump forward rather than making a stylistic retreat. Had the tide of sentiment been to simply recapture the specific approach of what came before, that would’ve still been a gesture of interest, as the formerly forbidden music wasn’t recorded in its earlier days; acknowledged gaita master Bitori, included on Pour Me a Grog with the track “Mô Na Máma” (backed by the group Fefé di Calbicera), didn’t hit a studio until 1997.

But it only takes a listen to opening cut “Rei di Tabanka” by Ferro Gaita to understand that the sound is utterly contemporary, with rhythms so forceful and hyper (if never not inclined for dancing) that they can come off like caffeinated drum machines. It seems clear to this non-Cabo Verdean that strong adherence to Funaná tradition is found in the up-front, proud nature of the gaita mastery; indeed, the finale of “Rei di Tabanka,” where the squeeze box simulates a sorta glorious traffic jam horn frenzy, is one of Pour Me a Grog’s highlights.

Ferro Gaita’s cut may read like a punk move (particularly with Revolt in this album’s title), but it was a smash at home, quickly selling 40,000 copies in a country of 400,000, making it closer to Thriller than Never Mind the Bollocks (or even Nevermind). In the context of Cabo Verde, the song’s even bigger (much bigger) than Thriller, as ten percent of the country owned “Rei di Tabanka.”

Throughout Pour Me a Grog, the energy refuses to flag, and if similar, with fluid electric bass as constant as the accordion, the songs don’t sound the same; there’s the smile-inducing backing vocals of Etalvinho Preta’s “Mulato Ferrera” and what sounds like a brief guitar figure (but might just be high-end bass notes) at the beginning of Tchota Suari e Chando Graciosa’s “Nha Boi,” and that’s just tracks two and three. There are five more, all offering thorough satisfaction (and a feel that’s distinct from Leite Quente, which is more defined by synth and guitar), as Ostinato Records does it again.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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