CAPE VERDE: Djonsinho Cabral - Os Tubarões
Updated: Feb 21, 2021
State-supported coladeira music that challenges themes of injustice and colonialism across the globe
Formed in 1969 in the small island nation of Cape Verde, Os Tubarões, meaning ‘The Sharks’, went on to become Cape Verde’s most popular singing group, in no small part due to its lead singer Ildo Lobo and his powerful and smooth voice. Their 1978 album Djosinho Cabral is a collection of songs in the traditional Cape Verdean styles of morna and coladeira, both of which show strong links to the music of Portugal – unsurprising due to the many centuries of colonisation Cape Verde had suffered at the hands of the Portuguese – while still keeping some more stereotypically African rhythms. This taken together means that Cape Verde has a unique musical culture. As such, during the immediate years after independence from Portugal when the country was under Marxist rule, Os Tubarões were seen as the ‘official’ band of the state. Unlike other state-sponsored bands we have seen, such as Balla et ses Balladins from Guinea or Los 3 Paraguayos (no prizes for guessing where they’re from), Os Tubarões were not paid or formed by the Cape Verdean government, but they were favoured by the government, and often sent abroad to represent Cape Verde and its music culture, and in doing so popularised the beautiful music traditions of their islands, decades before Cesária Évora rose to prominence. It comes as no surprise then that Ildo Lobo was an outspokenly political figure, and this manifests in his music with Os Tubarões.
“Known to have patrolled the stage with his trademark cheekily slanted beret, Lobo was a charismatic stage presence, but charismatic stage presence is nothing without the necessary talent, and he had that in abundance too.”
Their songs often had political themes that align with leftist politics. The most obvious of these is Ask Xanana, which is an anti-colonial song that specifically calls attention to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, but also speaks about neo-colonial actions by the United States in Panama, among others. The Xanana, of the title, is a reference to Xanana Gusmão, the Timorese revolutionary and later President and Prime Minister of East Timor, and the song implores us to be aware and to resist acts of injustice. The importance of the message to Lobo is also highlighted in the fact that it is the only song in English with certain verses sung in French. This to me shows that by using the world’s most commonly used lingua franca, Lobo and Os Tubarões wanted to make sure their message was as global as possible when talking about international issues.
The music itself is very beautiful. Lobo was known for his powerful voice, and it’s on full display on this album. Known to have patrolled the stage with his trademark cheekily slanted beret, Lobo was a charismatic stage presence, but charismatic stage presence is nothing without the necessary talent and he had that in abundance too. A beloved figure in Cape Verdean culture, when it was announced he had died, the entire country was given the afternoon off work to mourn. Listening to the album, though it for me doesn’t reach the heights of an album like Miss Perfumado by his compatriot Cesária Évora, you do get a good sense of why Os Tubarões and Lobo in particular were so loved. His voice is powerful and gentle at the same time, at times reminding me of French chanson singers such as Charles Trenet or Charles Aznavour, both of whom had a vocal quality similar to Lobo, especially in their ability to convey their melancholy, or ‘sodade’ in Lobo’s case, just through the sound of their voice.
However, it’s not just the Lobo show, and the band of musicians provide excellent accompaniment to the vocals, with superb guitar, drums and saxophone all providing beautiful moments of musical joy at various times. The music is rich with touching, melancholy melodies, such as those which can be found in songs like Nho Santiago or Zebra, as well as more upbeat tunes like the title track, Ask Xanana, Holanda e d’Holandes, or Nós Raça. Biografia Dum Criolo might be the best expression of both sides of the album. The latter features not only a gorgeous guitar solo but also a saxophone solo, and Lobo’s vocals are at their best, soaring to powerful heights as well as gently crooning, as he recounts the tale of a poor young boy experiencing hardship, waiting for progress to come, all the while feeling happy to have been born Cape Verdean. It’s a political song, it’s a personal song, but most of all, even before I knew the meaning of the lyrics, it was a beautifully bittersweet song, and all that comes across in Lobo’s vocals and the instrumentation. This superlative song aside, while it may not be as moving an album as some other coladeira I’ve heard, it is certainly of a very high quality, and it is an album I enjoyed very much. It serves as a testament to Lobo’s vocal abilities, as well as a document of Cape Verdean music culture in those early days of independence.