The happy island rhythms of São Tomé and Príncipe
By Fazio’s Megan Iacobini May 17, 2022
Despite its small size, the island republic of São Tomé and Príncipe has a rich and diverse mix of traditions and cultures. Located a few hundred kilometers off the west coast of Africa, facing Gabon, the small volcanic islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese “discovered” them in 1471, but were soon colonized by a motley band of explorers. , traders and convicts. Later, the Portuguese brought thousands of enslaved Africans to the islands to work on the sugar, coffee and cocoa plantations. Accordingly, the musical tapestry of São Tomé and Príncipe is a rich and complex tapestry that has much in common with other Portuguese-speaking African countries, but is distinguished by its own idiosyncratic elements.
“One of the characteristics is the way bands use background vocals, with a leader and four or five harmonizing vocals in the back,” says French DJ Thomas Bignon, aka DJ Tom B., a prolific collector of Brazilian and Angolan music. . In recent years, he has spent much of his time digging through thousands of tapes in the RNSTP National Radio Archive in São Tomé. “Another characteristic is the fusion between the Angolans semba, soukous, coladeira from Cape Verde, cadence of the West Indies, and compass from Haiti, afoxê from Brazil, and even a little from Kenya benga guitar in the first guitars, until the middle of the Seventies probably”, explains Bignon.
All these sounds, variously combined, resulted in infectious grooves, guitar and percussion which are perfectly highlighted on Léve-Leve: Sao Tomé & Principe rings in the 70s and 80s, the very first compilation devoted to the music of São Tomé and Principe. The record, curated by Bignon and released by Bongo Joe, captures the exuberance of island music and their carefree spirit, exemplified by the typical islander turn of phrase “raises raises“-Go slowly.
Live music is still a central part of island life, and many of its cultural events, such as the unique São Toméan chiloli theatre, which combines theatre, traditional dance and music. As independence from Portugal approached in 1975, music was both a fundamental tool of liberation and an intrinsic part of everyday life.
“For fun, people went in herds to the fondões (terraces or dance halls) to have fun”, explains Leonidio Barros, rhythm guitarist of the legendary Santomean group Africa Negra, whose music was recently collected in an anthology also recently published by Bongo Joe in collaboration with Bignon. “There were a lot of religious festivals in different villages where people went, even if they lived far away,” says Barros, who still plays and tours with Africa Negra.
Between the 1950s and 1990s, bands like Os Úntués, Conjunto Sangazuza and Sum Alvarinho took part in the island’s vibrant music scene, lighting up the outdoors teraços and crowded fondões with their heady blend of São Toméan socoped (the term means “only with the feet” or “to dance”), welland dance-congo rhythms. Many groups such as Conjunto Mindelo and Africa Negra fused Santomean styles with Angolan styles. refusedcreating the immensely danceable island rhythm known as puxa.
But no one has had as much of an impact on the music of the islands as Pedro Lima, who began playing as a teenager with his band Os Leonenses in the early 1960s. A permanent fixture in São Tomé’s vibrant music scene , Os Leoneses continued to play together until Lima’s death in 2019, and arguably changed the course of São Tomé’s music: “When I was around nine or ten years old, I lived in the Pantufo neighborhood in São Tomé,” recalls Barros. “The group [Os] Leonenses rehearsed in this same region, and I remember meeting their music and it was very important to me.
Through his delicate, melodic music, Lima frequently voiced the concerns of fellow islanders, even at the risk of angering the ruling party. Many Sao Tomean groups were politically committed to the race for independence – “most are hardline leftists”, says Bignon – but Lima remained outspoken even after the revolutionary party seized power from the Portuguese. Although he was a longtime supporter of the party, he “always opened his mouth if he disagreed and always had the people’s point of view,” says Bignon.
During his long career, At Voz do Povo in São Tomé(“The Voice of the People of the Island”), as he became known, recorded hundreds of songs, many of which exist only on the aging tapes of the São Tomé radio archives. Lima’s 1985 album Maguidala, recently reissued by Bongo Joe, is considered one of his best. Over four long tracks, Lima’s warm voice glides over the group’s driving rhythm section, often in effective interaction with his backing vocals, while lead guitarist Leopoldino Silva’s nimble improvisations intertwine with those of Pety-Zorro. soukous-like guitar patterns. Maguidala includes two soft and melodic rumbas and two fast rhythms puxas on which it is impossible not to dance.
Typically, Bignon explains, puxas “first lay out the theme and melody, then suddenly there’s a pause and the bassline attacks, as the lead singer heats up the dance floor singing and laughing,” before to come to an explosive end. This is particularly evident in the music of Africa Negra, one of the first Santomean bands to achieve international success. Founded in the early 1970s, Africa Negra absorbed stronger African influences after independence: “We mostly listened to Congolese and Angolan music, whether semba, refusedtango, rumba or kuassa kuassa,” says Barros, who joined the group in 1978.
The group’s eclecticism shines through Anthology Vol.1, which brings together tracks from several different albums over several decades. Explosive puxa rhythms rub shoulders with melodic rumbas and frenetic soukous; Ghanaian highlife vocals mingle with throbbing basslines, Cuban-influenced horns, booming guitars and fearsome percussion. In typical Santomean fashion, the members of Africa Negra provide emotional backing vocals while playing their own instruments, but it’s lead vocalist João Seria’s vocal interjections, screams and captivating laughter that propel the music forward. new heights.
Africa Negra was not as political on the surface as Lima, but that did not prevent them from being caught in the crosshairs of political elites: shortly after their formation, colonial authorities banned the name Africa Negra, and until 1974 the band performed as Girasol. . “Our music had nothing to do with politics at the time,” Barros explains, “but after independence we started to have the will to collaborate through music to give our support to the government, [… ] or write songs against them, depending on who was in charge at the time. “Bô legá caçô modêbô” from 1981 was one of Africa Negra’s songs to catch the attention of São Tomé’s censors. His ambiguous words could be interpreted as a cry against the lack of democracy, or as speaking of someone “who had the chance to win something very precious, but who passed on this opportunity”, explains Barros.
Like most groups on the islands, Africa Negra recorded at the studio of the national radio station RNSTP, which still houses thousands of tapes from different eras of Santomean music. Over the past five years, in collaboration with the local cultural center, Bignon has made it its mission to digitize and recover the decaying tapes. There are several other São Tomé and Príncipe-centric releases in the pipeline for Bignon and Bongo Joe, including an anthology of music from Lima and a second Africa Negra anthology featuring mostly previously unreleased material. But while many outside the islands are hearing these bands for the first time, they have remained hugely popular back home. Far from being relegated to the past, these legendary musicians are still part of the beating heart of São Tomé.