The story of Lusafrica begins on one night in Poço dos Negros (the Well of the Blacks), a few crisscrossed streets in the São Bento quarter of Lisbon; a maze of family boardinghouses and sellers of chorizo, bananas, salt cod and rum. José da Silva, who works for France’s national rail company, is having supper with his wife, enjoying catchoupa – a dish of beans, pork and corn that comforts Cabo Verdeans in their forced exile.
We are at an eatery belonging to Bana, a singer, producer and restaurant owner who has invited an old associate to sing at his bar. She is a sincere and moving, a queen. Her skin is coffee-colored and she is a little stout. Wearing a floral dress and pastel scarf, she twists at her purse with the shyness of a woman who has suffered hardship in her life. José da Silva immediately realizes that Cesaria has that almost magical ability possessed by certain popular artists to capture the spirit and poetry of the streets, conveying them with incandescent gestures, melodies and laughter. He has tears in his eyes.
Cesaria reminds him of his grandmother, born like her on the arid island of Sao Vicente, in Mindelo, Still just a baby, he set off with his mother on a ship bound for Senegal in 1959. Before he left for Paris as a teenager, he grew up in the Sicap Baobab project in Dakar, whose Cabo Verdean community listened to rumba, salsa, son and yéyé. There, he learnt Creole, a powerful blend of Portuguese, Bantu and Yoruba.
Going on fifty, Cesaria had long trodden the streets as a fallen artist of the postcolonial years. José da Silva’s pastime was percussion. The founder of a very dance-friendly group in Paris, Sun of Cap, he would be the driving force behind her renaissance. Their association would lead to six million albums sold and impressive tours of Mexico and Japan.
In 1988, The Barefoot Diva was released on Buda. Shortly after, José created a showcase for his muse: the Portuguese-language African record label Lusafrica. While she recorded her second French album, Distino di Belita, he designed the corporate logo himself, made his plans and listened to the thoughtful advice of a young employee of Mélodie who had learned his trade from British indie labels: François Post, a strong advocate of acoustic simplicity.
José da Silva was extraordinarily patient with the unruly queen of morna. He developed Lusafrica’s identity, molding it around Cesaria’s culture and her magnificent repertoire with travel, exploration and interconnecting trips between sub-Saharan Africa, Portugal, Brazil, Cuba, Britain…
Together with François Post, he masterminded Cesaria’s irresistible rise from Mar Azul in 1991 to Nha Sentimento in 2009: ten studio albums, compilations, new performances and live recordings. Naturally, there was the incredible Miss Perfumado (1992) featuring Sodade, a moving political morna rearranged by pianist Paulino Vieira. Then there was the bestselling Café Atlantico in 1999 (more than five hundred thousand copies sold in France), available in five versions. The whole world discovered Cesaria’s ‘little land’, which gave her a diplomatic passport.
Lusafrica was born in the golden age of CD sales and survived the collapse of the record market in the 2000s. “It was unhoped for, amazing,” says José da Silva, now President of Sony Music Entertainment in Abidjan, having handed over the management of his label to his daughter Elodie, an IT engineer. “Many were stopped in their tracks but I managed to maintain an excellent team and a very fine catalogue.” The first achievement: lasting thirty years without ever giving in to the blandishments of potential buyers (for the catalogue, rights, company and so on). His only concession was the signature of a licensing deal with BMG (now Sony) in 1993. The second asset: the strength of a respectful group that united to deal with the grief caused by Cesaria’s death in 2011.
Cesaria Evora was the keystone of the edifice, but Lusafrica rapidly began to develop and diversify. Firstly, the label released albums by Cabo Verdean artists, such as Norberto Tavares who lived in the United States at the time. Then it looked to the African mainland. In 1990 and 1995, Lusafrica produced albums by Gabon’s African hit-maker Oliver N’Goma, with the help of Cabo Verde’s Manu Lima. Its African venture later extended to top artists such as Gabon’s Pierre Akendengue and Mali’s Boubacar Traoré.
In 2000, Lusafrica purchased the masters of two missing world music albums: Angola 72 and Angola 74 recorded by Angolan dissident Bonga for Morabeza Records in Rotterdam. When Bonga joined Lusafrica, he wanted to re-record a favorite track, Mulemba Xangola, written in 1999 in Rio for Red Hot + Rio. He looked for a singer who could follow on from the Brazilian star Marisa Monte. That vocalist would be Lura, a young Cabo Verdean woman from Lisbon. Today, Lura has made a total of five albums for Lusafrica.
Then there was Cuba, visited in 1997 by José da Silva, who was looking for musicians capable of accompanying Cesaria in concerts at increasingly large venues and festivals. The former rail worker was a studio maestro, a producer with an expert ear, a mixed-race artist among others of that ilk who successfully dealt with all the ins and outs of Cuban bureaucracy. He was at home in the country. Cuban sound had left its mark on West Africa and clarinetist Luis Morais, who joined Lusafrica, theorized about this.
José da Silva came across two historic Cuban bands and signed them up: Orquesta Aragon, founded in 1939, and Septeto Habanero, formed in 1918. On the terrace of a café in Havana, José met a singer-songwriter called Polo Montanez, an emotional ex-woodcutter who wore a large hat and sang boleros and guajiras. In 2000, his Un Monton de Estrellas – taken from Guajiro Natural – was a huge hit in Latin America and Cuba. At the end of 2002, as he was preparing to promote his next album, Guitarra Mia, for the huge Mexican market, Polo Montanez died in a car crash.
José da Silva was a qualified accountant. But, he says, “There weren’t many Blacks in accountancy firms in those days.” So he went to work for the French national rail company and studied the business under African producer Ibrahima Sylla, founder of Syllart Records, creator in chief of modern African music. There he learnt the importance of the catalogue and the thousand and one ways of keeping it secure.
In 2000 came the launch of the Africa Nostra publishing company run by François Post, and then JDS Management was founded to organize tours. The group further developed with the launch of Harmonia based in Cabo Verde, a sort of observatory of the archipelago’s now thriving scene, equipped with studios and stores. Harmonia enabled the emergence of artists such as Tcheka and Mario Lucio, the country’s former Minister of Culture. The Tumbao company based in Lisbon coordinated the operation as a whole.
Lusafrica continues to successfully nurture the careers of young artists such as Elida Almeida and Lucibela, and Elodie da Silva has just set up an urban music department, The Garden, to surf on the great digital wave sweeping across Africa. Its first artist is Kenyan rapper and DJ Blinky Bill. History is on the march…
Written by Véronique Mortaigne.
Elodie Da Silva - CEO
Élodie brilliantly succeeds her father by getting the trust of the artists and with the same gift to identify the talents of tomorrow. She brings to the label a new breath and creates The Garden in 2018. Determined, bold and fond of chocolate.
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