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Raising the Barros: Maria de Barros recombines the rhythms of West Africa with Brazilian samba and bossa nova for a new take on Old World island sounds.

Goddaughter of Cesaria

Singer Maria de Barros inherits the mantle of Cape Verde song from a famous family friend

By Andrew Gilbert

THE VAST distance between the Old World and the new isn't merely a matter of miles. Immigrant communities can share the language, music and customs of their homeland, but the harsh realities of the old country often start to fade as people put down roots in the United States. Listening to the buoyant, often celebratory music of Los Angeles-based Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros and the ache-filled mornas of her famous godmother, Cesaria Evora, it's clear that while the two artists are united by a common culture, America's affluence and West Africa's poverty have set their music on divergent paths.

"Cesaria's life is a morna," de Barros says, referring to the blueslike musical form popular in Cape Verde's bars and cantinas. "This is someone who has suffered a lot, and now, thank God, she has been given everything she merits. My life is a completely different picture than hers."

De Barros celebrates the release of her gorgeous new album Morabeza with a series of Northern California gigs, including a Zookbeat concert at Don Quixote's this Tuesday and a show at the Big Sur Spirit Garden on Saturday, May 30. It was Evora who introduced the world to the music of Cape Verde in the early 1990s with her ineffably graceful, minor-key songs describing lives of hardship, heartbreak and anguished longing for absent loved ones. The morna is much like the blues in its heroic transcendence of hard times, but strongly inflected by the rhythms and cadences of West Africa, Brazil and Portugal, the colonial power in Cape Verde until 1975.

Endemic poverty on the island nation off the coast of Senegal has forced generations of Cape Verdeans to seek work far from home. One of the largest expatriate settlements is in Rhode Island, which is where de Barros settled with her family as a child. Born in Senegal and raised in Mauritania, she moved with her parents to Providence at the age of 11, joining a thriving, close-knit community.

She struck up a close friendship with Evora on a trip back to Cape Verde in 1988. When people asked if de Barros was the great singer's daughter, "She finally said, 'You know what? I'm your godmother,'" de Barros says. "'You baptize children and you never know how they come out. If I had to choose a godchild, I would choose someone like you. I know exactly how you are.'"

In the early '90s, de Barros moved with her husband, bassist Mel Wilson Jr., to Los Angeles. He had been touring with reggae pioneer Toots and the Maytals, but Cuban-born singer/actor Steve Bauer, best known for his role as Al Pacino's sidekick in Scarface, coaxed them to Los Angeles.

With no Cape Verdean community around, de Barros gravitated toward the southland's thriving Latin music scene, singing boleros and rancheras in Spanish. She hooked up with veteran producer Daniel Luchansky and spent several years working on a Spanish-language album, and when it didn't gel she heeded his advice to explore her roots.

The result was 2003's acclaimed Nha Mundo (My World). On Morabeza, she expands her array of seductive grooves, from reggae and samba to bossa nova and coladeira, a sprightly Cape Verdean dance rhythm, singing mostly in the Cape Verdean creole language of Criolu, which blends Portuguese with West African languages.

The ties to the old country remain deep and strong as de Barros works to create opportunities for women and children in Cape Verde, sponsoring three schools in poverty stricken neighborhoods. "I feel that when you're an artist, you don't only owe it to your fans," de Barros says. "It's also my responsibility to give back to my country."

MARIA DE BARROS performs Tuesday, May 26, at 7:30pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. Tickets are $16 advance/$20 door, available at or 831.603.2294.

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