Jazz-Turned-Pop Star Beats Cape Verdean Drum - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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A star at home, her musical reinvention is taking her to a new global audience.

  • Renowned among Francophone and Lusophone audiences, the jazz singer Mayra Andrade is embracing a new sound: Afrobeats.
  • She’s lifting up the impoverished but idyllic country of Cape Verde as one of the most prominent members of its strong diaspora.

During her first performance in Accra, Ghana, Mayra Andrade was so entranced by the irresistible dynamism of the contemporary West African sounds known as Afrobeats that she began experimenting with the genre. She was already a jazz star in Cape Verde, but that moment six years ago sparked a new direction that now has her capturing a global audience. “Since then, I’ve been drinking a lot of the water,” she says.

It hasn’t always gone down easy. It took two years and 10 producers to assemble Andrade’s fifth album, 2019’s Manga, that has introduced her to a new audience drinking from the Afrobeats stream. She keeps returning to Accra from her home in Lisbon, Portugal, including in March for recording sessions. That’s led to an extended stay, with government coronavirus travel restrictions keeping her from returning home.

Now she, like much of the entertainment world, is in limbo. Fifty of her shows around the world have been canceled due to complications from COVID-19, so the 35-year-old has no choice but to keep experimenting while trying to maintain her sanity.

Romantic perspectives are for tourists and they want postcards. What I try to portray in my songs is much deeper.

Mayra Andrade

Andrade has taken the torch as arguably the biggest musical export from the tiny archipelago of West African islands since her mentor, the late Grammy Award-winning Cesária Évora.

Since her birth in 1980s Cuba, Andrade’s life has been a winding journey, each stop reflected in her music. Her father, a member of the PAIGC liberation movement that later became a political party, fought alongside the renowned revolutionary Amilcar Cabral for independence from the Portuguese. And then Mayra was born in Cuba, one of PAIGC’s few allies in the war. After her birth, her parents moved back to Africa but separated when she was 6.

In her teenage years, she moved around Canada, France, Angola, Senegal and Germany but now lives in Lisbon. At 15, the child prodigy already had her own band, and her professional career kicked off the following year.

While in Paris, she took voice lessons and began working with composers with heavy Brazilian and Portuguese influences. She released her first album in 2006, but it was not until 2013’s Lovely Difficult that she began integrating a pop flavor into her background of jazz and the Cape Verdean funana genre. “I’ve always felt like I have a strong identity,” Andrade insists. “My roots have always been present in my music, but that was the album where I tried to go for more of a crossover sound.” 

Today, Andrade, who is signed to Universal Music, sings in four languages — Kriolu (the national language of Cape Verde), French, English and Portuguese — and is renowned within Lusophone and Francophone audiences. She also writes music for guitar, but on stage she plays the ferrinho, a metal bar that’s traditionally played with another metal in a scraping or peeling motion. Though her new sound is more accessible, she says she’s not focused on becoming a crossover star. The themes in her music range from life on the road and immigration to love, femininity, sensuality, identity, LGBT rights, and the struggles of her father and his comrades.

Cape Verde has no natural resources, and the World Bank estimates that 14 percent of its 555,000 residents are living in extreme poverty, despite its idyllic landscape. “Romantic perspectives are for tourists and they want postcards,” she laughs. “What I try to portray in my songs is much deeper. People there, they are very genuine, unique, welcoming, open, curious about other cultures but everything is not perfect.”

Andrade’s music also evokes strong emotions in the younger generation of Cape Verdeans in the diaspora — a 1 million strong group often called the 11th island — explains Terza Lima-Neves, professor of political science at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. “As a member of the diaspora herself, I think she conveys the idea that one’s identity belongs to the individual even when one is a die-hard Cabo Verdean — one gets to decide how one shows up and takes up space,” Lima-Neves says. “She’s been doing this since she was very young, so most of us who are fans have seen her express herself so eloquently through her music, grow as an artist by incorporating global sounds but never forgetting where she comes from.”

After two decades of hoisting the island on her shoulders, Andrade is ready to free herself from those burdens and just dance. Manga is the album of a mature woman aligned with herself more than ever. Its eponymous single celebrates the sensuality of mango as flesh. Other tracks juxtapose her Cape Verdean roots in a celebration of contemporary West African polyrhythms.

Benewaah Boateng, director of the Accra-based music agency Harmattan Rain, describes her sound as a Cape Verdean spin on Afrobeats that works because of its soothing and unique nature and the “confidence” of her delivery.

Andrade acknowledges that this experiment is a much smoother one than the last, and that her “thirst for modernity” seems to have been fulfilled. Lovely Difficult may have shown her audience that her music was moving in new directions, but it also showed her that she was no pop star, she says. “Manga was a release showing me that I could do something less foreign-ish on riddims that I’m comfortable with. This is me being free, being emancipated.”

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