Bitori feat. Chando Graciosa
Cabo Verdean funaná
Praia, Santiago Island, Cabo Verde
Richmond audiences have a rare opportunity to see a legend of Cabo Verdean funaná at this year’s festival. While the nostalgic morna of the northern islands, Cabo Verde’s best-known genre, is played throughout the archipelago, the joyful, insurgent sound of accordion-based funaná is unique to Santiago Island in the south. Santiago is also the birthplace of accordion player Victor Tavares, better known as Bitori. Now an elder statesman of funaná, Bitori is finally receiving recognition for his central role in preserving the music that, as singer Chando Graciosa says, “represents the citizens of Cabo Verde, who are defined not by what they own but by what keeps them going: Hope.”
Key to funaná is the gaita, a diatonic accordion brought by Portuguese colonists in the early 1900s. The gaita was quickly adopted by musicians on Santiago, who appreciated both its tone and its volume, well-suited to powering rowdy dances in the age before amplification. To this they added the ferrinho, a metal rod scraped with a kitchen knife that provides a distinctive, gangling percussion. Funaná draws strongly on African traditions, and was closely identified with Santiago’s working class. “When they played funaná,” notes another prominent musician, “it was like a hymn for freedom.”
As a teenager, Bitori was so enamored with the gaita that in 1956, at age 18, he booked passage to the neighboring nation São Tomé & Principe, where paying jobs were more plentiful. It took two years to accumulate enough money to buy one, but he returned home with his cherished instrument in hand. With a style that has been described as both “the purr of a fat cat” and “an infectious blaze … that ignited the local festivities,” Bitori quickly became a leading figure in funaná. However, the genre suffered under official censure by the Portuguese colonial government, who feared its subversive potential. Even after independence came in 1975, political and cultural elites in Cabo Verde continued to disparage the music; nonetheless it gained popularity yet again among the people of Santiago.
Finally in 1997, a young funaná singer named Chando Graciosa convinced the master Bitori to record with him in Rotterdam. The resulting album, Bitori Nha Bibinha, featured many Bitori compositions and catapulted them both to stardom across Cabo Verde. That now-legendary album got a worldwide reissue in 2016 as Bitori: Legend of Funaná, and today Bitori, at a youthful 79 years, is an ambassador bringing funaná to the world and a celebrated national treasure at home—this past May the President of the Republic of Cabo Verde presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In Richmond, he is accompanied by an all-star band featuring stellar vocalist Graciosa, veteran São Vincente drummer Toy Paris, Toy’s nephew Miroca Paris (for 12 years the percussionist for Cesária Évora), and bassist Danilo Tavares, who produced the album that jumpstarted funaná’s triumphant resurgence.