SÃO TOMÉ AND PRÍNCIPE: Yellow - Calema
Updated: Jan 25
Adopting and adapting a number of African and European styles into pop, this duo manage to keep true to their roots while retaining global appeal
Being a former Portuguese colony, it is no surprise that São Tomé and Príncipe has many Portuguese elements within its culture and music, and that it has felt an affinity for other former Portuguese colonial possessions. As the smallest Portuguese-speaking nation both by population and land area, São Tome and Príncipe, coul have been overpowered culturally by the far larger and more populous nations such as Brazil and Angola, it nonetheless has held its own in the crowded and talented lusophone music arena. São Toméan duo Calema have achieved great success in their country of origin, as well as worldwide, with their 2018 song A Nossa Vez achieving over 96 million views on YouTube, and their lead single from Yellow, Te Amo, already at 45 million. They perform a style of music that is based on Angolan kizomba, though it is far from the original kizomba style. Initially a slower, more dance-oriented version of the popular Angolan musical form named semba – check out the music of revolutionary (in more ways than one) musician Bonga for a good example of semba – in more recent years, a younger generation of musicians from across the Portuguese-speaking world have reworked it in their own image, and one of those groups is Calema, whose electronic kizomba music is both immediately accessible, as it sounds much like modern pop music, yet dig a bit deeper and one can hear the varied influences that have impacted their 2020 album, Yellow.
“Calema clearly have skill and talent, and their ear for a slick, modern kizomba music is on display here.”
Calema is formed of two brothers named António and Fradique Mendes Ferreira. Born in São Tomé and Príncipe, they moved to Portugal to study, before moving to France where they began their music careers in earnest. And yet, the island shores of home remain close to their hearts. The very name of their duo, Calema, is a reference to a kind of particular ocean swell found on African coasts. The music itself shows influences from all over, reflective of the brothers’ experiences living in several countries. The song 00h30 features an accordion, as well as a guitar part reminiscent of Spanish guitar. While the album, on the whole, is mostly sung in Portuguese, the title track features some English lyrics. The beat throughout is nonetheless similar to a lot of modern pop that I think makes it easily listenable to the worldwide audience that they have expertly tapped into. While all the songs are enjoyable, I think the best song is Te Amo, a slow love ballad that feels fresh and vibrant, in part due to the guitar solo that is reminiscent of Congolese soukous music.
The brothers both have nice voices that suit the sort of music they make. Smooth, clear R&B-inflected vocals are a hallmark of this album, and while some of the songs, like Abraços can border on the generic, their vocals always stand out as a highlight of any song you might like to pick. What is nice is the variety on the album, mixing upbeat pop songs with slower ballads, with songs like O Amor Bateu à Porta even veering towards folk-pop, and others like Preparado clearly taking their cues from hip-hop. Calema clearly have skill and talent, and their ear for a slick, modern kizomba music is on display here. The album may not reinvent the wheel, but the duo do manage to impart their own personality and experiences on music that is essentially party music for as wide an audience as possible. I can easily imagine pretty much any song from this album going down well in a nightclub setting, though Yellow is maybe best suited for such a setting. Calema clearly have global ambitions, and they’re more than on their way to achieving them. Through their continued inclusion of African and São Toméan influences in their songs, hopefully they will continue to bring a spotlight onto the São Toméan music scene.