Brightening up the Baia

A small village in Cape Verde benefits from Brazilian-inspired street art

Baia de Norte looks out quietly on the Atlantic waves washing into the bay below, with the brown gravel slopes of Monte Verde running away above.  Chickens hop along the walls and dogs jog around the corners and we are welcomed by the squealing of a couple of pigs in breeze-block pens.

Bright blues and reds, sharp lines of green and blasts of yellow shout across the dirt roads and bring to life the simple walls of the village.

A group of artists from fellow Portuguese-speaking Brazil have come to Baia de Norte over the last couple of years, using their artistic skills to bring the warmth and optimism of colour and light to the humble houses.

The co-operative have shown off their thoughtful designs throughout the small settlement, which overlooks Baia das Gatas on the northern coast of the island of Sao Vicente.

It is rich art with a range of work that often incorporates the existing windows and pipes on the village houses into the paintings.

On one house, pink boats and yellow anchors call to mind the surrounding open Atlantic, which laps the shores of both countries.

Large palm trees and quirky houses adorn one wall, with ravenous animals on another.

There are fishermen and different figures, there are bold blocks and intricate facial details. There are also less obvious spray-strokes such as someone’s polka-dot washing hanging on a line. It is brilliant art splashed against the grey walls.

There is also a fish portraying the international connections with its head of Brazilian green, yellow and blue as it drifts through the sky and sea blues of Cape Verde.

The islands’ villages are often brightly coloured, with big bands of orange, teal and crimson shining in the streets. Here in Baia de Norte the artists bring that brilliance to a less fortunate corner of what is a beautiful archipelago.

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Islands in the sun

An Atlantic archipelago is making waves among small, African nations

Cape Verde calls holiday-makers to its pristine beaches, adventurers to its active volcano and scientists to study its unique ecosystems and endemic wildlife.

 

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Off the west coast of Africa, more than 500km out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Verde has a deep and speckled history and is hoping for a bright future.

The islands’ geographical isolation from the mainland means that they have not been tainted by the political thrills and spills in other West African countries.

It enjoys a relatively stable democracy, with peaceful transfers of power between different parties at free elections. There has not been one coup d’état since independence in 1975.

Its unique location in the Atlantic between Africa and South America first saw the Portuguese establish a slave-trading exchange between Brazil and Lisbon’s western African colonies.

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Then the American whaling ships swung by on their way to the hunting grounds to pick up supplies and young men looking for a life at sea away from the volcanic rocks. After that saw the construction of coal stations built by the British for cross-ocean steamers.

The islands have a population of 520,000 but thousands more claim Cape Verdean heritage in a well-established diaspora built upon the sea-faring traditions and international connections of the islanders.

To that end, remittances from overseas nationals provide a substantial boost to the economy, though tourism is easily the biggest source of income. Thousands of visitors come each year to while away hours on the white-sand beaches of the eastern islands, get lost in the canyons in the north, or take in the active volcanic island of Fogo.

And it is on that island that wine is famously produced on the lava of the islands’ highest point, Pico de Fogo. Aside from that though, the agriculture sector has been hard to develop on the windswept rocky islands. Some fruits are grown – but about 90% of food is imported.

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Life expectancy of approximately 73.5 years is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa and the literacy rate is around 87%.

The World Bank sees the next steps for the archipelago’s economy as being to diversify ‘within and beyond’ the tourism sector, building a more flexible labour market and refining the investment climate. Additionally, there are hopes of improvements to the infrastructure links between the islands (some are just a few kilometres on a ferry apart; others are an hour’s flight away).

Morna, the melancholic genre of lilting music whose most famous exponent was Cesaria Evora, has been a major cultural export success. Indeed, music is part of the national DNA from the gyrating passion of the batuko to the anti-imperialist beat-surge of the funana.

All this reaches its climax in the run-up to Lent (this year just around the corner from 10-14 February) with the Cape Verde Carnival, when the islands will sway and stomp to a riot of kaleidoscopic dancers, floats and bands with a party to rival any that their Brazilian friends across the ocean could offer.

This blog will report from Cape Verde next month

El Búho’s ‘Balance’ – review

Balance opens like a springtime morning, with “Coro del Amanecer” nudging the door ajar to let in the light of birdsong.

It moves gently to add layered beats, the coming or going of footsteps, the tinkle of water and Veronica Valerio’s echoing voice. By the time we get three minutes into the song, we are up to full strength, but this is a soft power which fades to end.

The record is El Búho’s first full-length offering and, going by this example, there will be many people chomping at the bit for even more.

El Búho (‘The Owl’) is Robin Perkins, a British producer who has become something of a sensation in the folktronica scene. He has now moved back to Europe after a productive spell in Mexico, where he explored the country’s indigenous music, traditional instruments and – especially through the rivers, forests and sounds of the deep south – the overwhelmingly natural beauty.

It is the integration of natural elements into his work that makes El Búho stands out. This is not any old hip-shaking and rum-swilling Latin music (as enticing as that can be): this is organic electronica.

It is borne from simple ingredrients: the wash of waves, the calls of birds, the sounds of sunshine glinting through a million trees.

On “Tlacotlan” we hear the chirps of songbirds and the croaks of crows whilst “Ynglingtal” calls to mind sand through your toes against spilling breakers on the beach.

He demonstrates his depth of skill on “Papan” with the layered keys, strings and beats clipping together with nods to glitch-notes here and there.

Three-quarters of the songs are collaborations and El Búho reaches far and wide for his featured artists, from the madness of Cairo, to the floating airs and hills of Bolivia, via Mexican poetry.

The warbling on “Madre Tierra” may not be for everybody and “Brigantes” doesn’t really feel as though it goes anywhere as a piece but overall this is a beautiful record.

Balance is his first album and it drops just as he completes his move from Mexico City to Paris. We spoke to him before he left Mexico and we spoke to him again to find out a little more about Balance and the effect of Mexico on his music.

What’s the next stage for your music? What can you learn from this album?

I have a hundred ideas floating around in my head, going back to music inspired by birds, to music inspired by the folklore of my own country (the UK), making some EPs inspired by the places I have lived, another album. The other thing I would love to do is release a “tapes” or “beats” album of all the many, many unreleased tracks I have sitting on my hard drive! I think I learnt that an album should represent a period in your music growth or in your life. So much time passes between actually making the tracks and releasing them that to you they sound old even though no-one else has heard them! You have to just get to the point of accepting it and being happy with it representing a period of your life but I really think as a music producer you never stop learning and challenging yourself to improve.

Now that you have come back to Europe, which countries are you hoping to take your tunes to next?

Well, I played in Berlin for the first time recently and it was one of the best gigs I have played in a long time. Such an incredible, open-minded, approachable, respectable crowd of beautiful people dancing the night away to 80BPM music! It doesn’t happen everywhere. I will be playing in Spain soon and hopefully the UK for the first time soon as well (kind of crazy!)

And what’s your sense reflecting on the influence that Mexico had on you?

I think it was quite profound actually, going back to Latin America and understanding the incredibly different, complex and diverse context of Mexico, musically but also socially and politically. For my music it definitely opened me up to new ideas, to new histories, to new styles and genres and showed me, yet again, just how diverse Latin America is.

There was a bunch of music I made there on the Tamoanchan and Chinampa EPs and I feel it is pretty different, you can’t put your finger on it. I also always forget that Cenotes, which I kind of see as my breakthrough EP, was written in Mexico as well as most of tracks on the album! I think the other thing was the incredible reception I received in Mexico at shows. I felt a bit like an adopted Mexican to be honest and I’d love to go back and play soon.

What does the future hold for Shika Shika, the collective you run with Argentinian producer Barrio Lindo?

We are astounded by the incredible music that surrounds us. We just put out three beautiful edits of South American folk by our friend, the Argentinian producer Barda, and in a few weeks we are going to release our third compilation to celebrate our two-year anniversary! It is called Eco and it has some absolutely beautiful, killer, slow, deep, textured global sounds on it.

This article first appeared on Sounds and Colours.

A mountain view for Catalonia

Could a Pyrenean principality be a blueprint for an independent Catalonia?

CREDIT: visitandorra.com

A free and sovereign nation-state, where Catalan is the official language and the euro is the currency.

Whilst that may be a dream for many people across Catalonia – it is the reality for the 80,000 citizens of the principality of Andorra.

Could the tiny mountain nation be a model for a future Catalonia if they region were to break free from Spain?

Andorra is sandwiched between France and Spain, unique in that it is the only country governed by a co-monarchy. One head of state is the president of France and the other is the Bishop of Urgell (a town in Spain just to the south of Andorra).

The heads of state act in concert with the elected government. Winter skiing and summer hiking provide a substantial tourist income.

Andorra has a lot of cultural affinity with Catalonia through music, literature, and dance.

A breakaway Catalonia would have several other similarities.

Like Andorra, it would not be in the European Union, it would use the euro, and, of course, it would be a Catalan-speaking country.

But there are no guarantees that Andorrans would rush to embrace their separatist brethren across the mountains.

They might very well like to see another Catalan-speaking nation.

But Andorra could find itself having to choose between being the first country to recognise an independent Catalonia or preferring the stability of the wider region and hoping that the integrity of Spain is preserved.

CREDIT: britannica.com

There is also the example of the little-known enclave of Llivia.

A part of Spain surrounded by France, Llivia is a relic of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, when Spain ceded a group of villages to France.

But rather than a village, Llivia had been designated a town, and so it remained part of Spain. As every village to the north, south, east and west integrated into France, Llivia was left as an inland island of Spain.

In truth, it is more an island of Catalonia.

The Catalan estelada flag flies from the balconies, Catalan is spoken and it is part of the Catalan province of Gerona. Llivia also voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in the banned referendum on 1 October.

The enclave offers an intriguing viewpoint of a part of Spain that is already physically separate from the mother country.

And Andorra, too, provides a fascinating and unique example of a Catalanaphone nation-state.

For pro-independence Catalans who have been suffering from nightmares over the last week after their leader fled to Belgium and Spain withdrew some of Catalonia’s devolved powers, they could perhaps settle on a more pleasant dream if they turn their gaze northwards to the Pyrenees and the thoughts of what the future could yet bring.

What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.

Moscow on manoeuvres

While playing openly on the world stage, Russia holds onto a more subtle influence in Europe

Vladimir Putin has been holding court on the international scene in recent months.

Laughing off US investigations into election meddling, championing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s civil war efforts, and reining in Western powers’ determined punishment of North Korea.

It waves its veto whenever a Syria resolution is brought before the United Nations, and only gives the green light to sanctions on North Korea that ensure the secretive state does hold onto some wriggle room.

But as all this global drama plays out, Russia also has ongoing geopolitical interests in hidden corners of Europe.

Moldova sits on the shoulder of Romania, jutting into Ukraine. It is an often-overlooked nation – except, perhaps, by European football fans on unique away-days.

It is the poorest country in the region. Economic output last year was $6.8bn, according to the World Bank. Comparable in population size, income status and geography, Albania saw GDP of $11bn, with a much higher life expectancy.

Moldova also has a breakaway, Russian-leaning region.

Transnistria comprises a sliver of land to the east of the River Dniper up to the nearby border with Ukraine.

It has declared independence but is only recognised by other breakaway, Russophile regions, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both parts of Georgia now controlled by Moscow).

Russian is the local lingo, the hammer and sickle is on the flag and citizens buy their shopping with a version of the ruble.

So could Transnistria rejoin the Moscow motherland?

It is not without precedent.

The Russian state of Tuva, now an integral part of the country, is a southern province off the south-east border with Mongolia. And in 1944 it requested incorporation into the Soviet Union. Tuvans enjoyed a 23-year-long independence before calling off their self-governing statehood.

But if Transnistria were to re-incorporate into Russia, then it would be cut off from the mainland. It would be stranded in Europe, surrounded by independent countries wary of Russia.

That, too, would not be anything new.

Nestled between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad is a constituent part of Russia, but an exclave with no direct land connection to the mainland.

Annexed by the Soviet Union after World War Two, when the USSR broke up in 1989, the former Communist Poland and the former Soviet Lithuania declared independence, encircling Kaliningrad, which remained part of Russia.

It may have lost a number of its territories when the Soviet Union collapsed, but there remain several pockets of peoples across Europe who want to break free of their European Union-leaning governments and look to Moscow for their futures.

And if we are looking for a sad illustration of when these disputes turn to war, then there is also an example for this: the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where Russophile rebels are fighting the government in the east of the country.

 

Nina Miranda – Interview

She first came to prominence in 1997, as her band Smoke City’s ‘Underwater Love’ reached #4 in the UK charts. Now, 20 years on, Nina Miranda is finally releasing her first solo album.

After a period as lead singer with the groups Zeep and Shrift and numerous collaboration projects, including with Seu Jorge, Basement Jaxx and Gilles Peterson, the Anglo-Brazilian artist is striking out alone, bringing together her fusion of genres, languages and international influences. Her father is from Rio de Janeiro and her mother was born in Iran and the two met in Paris – this global background impacts positively through Miranda’s free-flowing and improvisational style.

Freedom of Movement swirls from place to place, crossing stylistic boundaries that you can be sure would leave many mainstream record companies confused (it was recorded in a studio space above her flat with deliberately open windows letting in all the hubbub of London life). That said, she has produced a work she can finally call her own, working with members of Ibibio Sound Machine and Chris Franck, who she first joined forces with all those years ago back with Smoke City.

It is an album of dizzying stimuli and a proud marker of the creative spirit that pulses through the artist. If you like bossa nova and indie, tropicália and chill pop, vapourwave and electronica, then this album, with its animals, seas and sultry moods should be for you.

I had a quick cup of coffee with the Anglo-Brazilian artist before she rushed off to Glastonbury (where she teamed up with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré).

Nina, this is your first solo album – what are the main messages that you hope the listener takes away from it?

Well it’s called Freedom of Movement so I would say that is one of the main messages, along with the importance of fusion, open possibilities, and the joy of collaboration. That said, it’s good after all these years to be steering my own ship now.

Steering your own ship – does that mean that with your previous work with Smoke City in the 1990s and then Zeep and Shrift afterwards you were not totally in control? Or have as much say as you would have liked?

Smoke City worked on compromise. And we wanted to hold onto our connection to the underground. We had three members and sometimes two of them would get together and work on something and the third member would come in and hear it and choose to change parts of it. Or someone else wouldn’t like another member’s suggestions. It was the blend that was important.

Let’s look back to your Smoke City days then. How is the Nina Miranda of 2017 different from the Nina Miranda of 1997 and the “Underwater Love” era?

I hardly recognise myself in the videos from then! When I watch them it looks like a girl in some kind of dream. My work now stills holds the essence of 1997, there’s still the importance of collaboration running through it. I guess perhaps there’s more personal originality now, as an artist – not simply a singer.

And looking the other way… which direction would like to see your career take in another ten years?

I’d like to play an instrument, I reckon. Maybe write a musical and act in it, co-direct it as well. But maybe that’s just the Brazilian side of me dreaming, rather than the British reality!

That’s one part of your music that really stands out – the fusion of the genres and national themes. Which has been a greater influence on your music: the Brazilian or British side?

The Brazilian side keeps me connected with the music and feelings in Brazil. There’s a flow and improvisation that comes with working with Brazilian musicians. There’s a certain feel. You understand that you are working with humans, not musicians.

“Amazonia Amor” on your new record really takes you to Brazil. You get a sense of an electronic rainforest at times.

It’s the birds and the landscape, and there are horses too. I find the animal aspect therapeutic and mixing up the sounds of the rainforest means that you can accentuate the reality. You might also hear birdsong on other tracks – they are the actual birds singing in my garden in London because we recorded this in a studio with all the windows open! Even the pock-pock of tennis balls from a nearby court are on the album.

And the track Silken Horse..?

Exactly. I wanted the feel of nature, so the beat of the hooves and the sense of a living, breathing horse to come through on that one. Natural images and artistic licence working together.

How do you think Brazilian music and British music interact with each other? What can they learn from one another?

Brazilian music is often set around dealing with themes of love, happiness and the struggle. It has a certain exoticism for Britons: samba, bossa nova, tropicália… but that said, back in Brazil, there’s a real love for bands such as The Cure, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I mean, for Brazilians, KISS were pretty exotic themselves, with their dress and performances. So there’s a mutual exoticism for the other.

In “Whole of London”, you sing a lot about ‘wandering’. With your dual-national heritage, how true is that of how you feel at this stage in your life?

That’s how I feel when I’m cooped up in one city for too long. So in fact, it’s the other way round. I get tired of wandering the same streets of one city, not tired of wandering the world. The same goes for if I’m confined with one particular group of people – I enjoy mixing it up.

Which festival or musical genre would you feel most at home with, if you had to stay somewhere for a while, listening to the same music?

WOMAD is for me the festival that I connect with most. My music plays with people; it tickles them, slaps them and pinches them. The fusion of different images. I like festivals because of the mix of music and people, coming together in huge numbers to listen to a particular artist. I’m quite outspoken and I have to be careful – demonstrations can have a similar vibe to festivals, the collective chanting or singing, a togetherness.

Picking up on that point, how important or not do you think the role of music is in political protest?

It’s so important. It’s easy to be seduced by the mainstream and not wanting to offend people but, as I said, I’m outspoken and I feel that as artists, we have the platform to express ourselves and we should use it.

Now let’s try some quickfire questions…

Gin & tonic or caipirinha? Gin during the day but caipirinhas at night!

Feijoada or roast beef? That’s easy – feijoada.

Nelson’s Column or Christ the Redeemer? Christ the Redeemer – when the time comes I think it would be a poignant place to have your ashes scattered, looking down on the city and out to sea.

Bossa nova or Brit pop? Can I say tropicália instead?

Nina Miranda’s Freedom of Movement is released by Six Degrees Records and available from Bandcamp, Amazon UK, Amazon US and iTunes.

This article first appeared on Sounds and Colours.

No-fly zone

Are the changing fortunes of the Gulf carriers a cause for concern?

On my most recent long-haul flight, in December last year, the route took my fellow passengers and me across five countries, three continents and one ocean. Out of the European Union, through the African Union and into the Union of South American Nations. Trans-Atlantic and trans-hemisphere. North to south, winter to summer, three hours backwards in time zones.

A Qatar Airways flight takes off (QR official)

This happened smoothly and the few hundred of us on board had no reason to spend time thinking about the intricacies of international aircraft and airspace agreements. The hundreds of thousands of people up in the sky as you read this will rather be watching films, snatching a few restless hours’ kip or nibbling at a tray of in-flight food.

But when diplomatic quarrels escalate to include no-entry signs for the maligned airlines of regional foes, things come more sharply into focus.

Qatar Airways is having a bumpy old time of it at the moment. On the bright side, it has just regained its title as best airline in the world. The consumer website Skytrax also awarded it best airline in the Gulf.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led isolation of Qatar by several countries – nations from as far and wide as Mauritania, Mauritius, and the Maldives – has forced the airline to shift some of its routes. It has been banned, for the moment, from passing over certain countries – frustratingly for Doha, they include its three closest neighbours: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

An Etihad Airbus A380 plane (EY official)

This should be a red-letter day for its rival Gulf airlines, Etihad and Emirates, based out of the UAE cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. It certainly offers some relief for the former, which has been enduring a torrid time relating to its investment in the Italian flag-carrier, Alitalia.

Last month, the struggling Rome-based airline filed for bankruptcy. Etihad pumped just shy of €2bn into Alitalia in 2014 but has seen its opportunity to make anything of the investment blow away in the wind.

Emirates is also on a bit of a come-down this year, recording profit before tax of $405m – an enormous drop from 2016’s figure of $2bn. The Dubai-based carrier explained the  challenges its margins faced as coming from “increased competition and overcapacity”.

An Emirates Boeing 777 (EK official)

It also complained that it had been hit by a drop in demand for flights to the US which it blamed on “the actions taken by the US government relating to the issuance of entry visas, heightened security vetting, and restrictions on electronic devices in aircraft cabins”.

 

So is the status of the Gulf as the world air hub in danger? It pounced on saturation in European airports such as Heathrow (UK), Schiphol (Netherlands) and Frankfurt (Germany) and promoted its geography. Racing economies in Qatar and the UAE boosted its position further, and with investment came expansion in routes, passenger numbers, aeroplane numbers and the size of their airports.

The dwindling price of oil certainly called this into question and the US ban mentioned above hit the area further. Now that the countries in the region have fallen out with each other it has derailed the upward curve the major Gulf airlines enjoyed. They are finding life a bit tougher at the top.

Their rise was cheered and this period of turbulence is useful in that it serves to remind them that it is always easier to be the challenger upstart, but pressure builds when you yourself turn into an established player in the world’s airspace.