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Monday, January 10, 2011

Morna, Another Blues

A Morna group.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like rembetiko and fado, morna is a music genre that stresses separateness, longing, wistfulness, and all the sadness of a disenfranchised people who have experienced pain.  Morna is the music of Cape Verde, an island country comprised of fifteen islands in the central Atlantic Ocean, about 354 miles west of the coast of Africa.  Cape Verde was very important in the slave trade because of its location, hence some of the sadness.  The land is very remote, rocky, and subject to drought.

Morna goes back about a hundred and fifty years, and is complex hybrid of African and European cultures.  It is the national music  of Cape Verde, and is popular in Cape Verdean communities all over the world.  Some musicologists trace the genre back to a genre called the lundum (or lundu), from Africa, most likely Angola.  It is a dance-song from the Bantu tribe, which spread through various regions of Africa.  Slaves brought it to Brazil, where it was very popular among the elite and even became Brazil’s first national dance.  Lundum is related to the Spanish fandango and new world dances like the bolero.  All of these include scarfs, castanets, and holding arms over the head.  There was also a genre in Cape Verde called the choros, which are plaintive songs, like working songs.  Morna is therefore considered a cross between the lundum and the choros.  Initially, morna did not have any romantic themes; they developed along with the genre.

There is some argument where the word came from.  One faction thinks it comes from the English word “to mourn”.  Others say it comes from the French word “morne”, which is the name of the hills in French Antilles where chanson des mornes are sung.  Most writers think, however, that the name is from the Portuguese “morno” meaning “warm”, a reference to the way morna is sung.

The music is characterized by a slow tempo.  The main instrument is a guitar.  A morna can also be performed on a piano.  However, a medium-sized band may have a twelve string guitar, a guitar-like instrument called a cavaquinho, another instrument (perhaps a violin), some percussion and the singer.  A larger band may add an acoustic bass guitar, a clarinet or trumpet, and several percussion instruments, including bongos.  In the 60s, bands began playing morna with electric instruments and a drum kit, but by the late 90s there was a return to the roots and the use of acoustic instruments. 

The theme of a morna can be varied, but certain subjects seem to be used more often.  Besides the universal theme of love, there is the homesickness and love of the sea.  One of the most famous morna composers was Eugénio Tavares of Brava Island.  He used morna to express his heartbreak when his love left on a ship.  He loved fado, which influenced his work, and when he died in 1930 he was considered a national treasure, leaving behind a body of works.

Eugenio de Paula Tavares (1867-1930)
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The next great composer of morna came along once morna was a fully-developed form.  Francisco Xavier da Cruz, who went by B. Leza, had written over 1,700 songs when he died in 1980, which remain the standards for the genre.  Late in life he became paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.  He still performed, changing the form since he suffered from shortness of breath.  He shortened his words and swallowed some syllables, and did it so well it influenced the style of all morna singers.

Cesaria Evora, better known as the “barefoot diva” has sung mornas in concert all over the world once she was discovered in 1980.  She is the niece of B. Leza.   Check out the video below - English translation below the video.

The singer Bana, aka Andriano Conçalves is also hugely popular.  He and B. Leza performed together until the latter's death in 1958.  He is known as the King of the Cape Verde Islands.  His initial albums were so successful that he soon was performing in sold-out shows.  He retired in 1986, but did make one more album after that.  Fans are hoping he will make more.

Image courtesy of National Geographic World Music
The blues seem to appeal to many cultures, and they all have their takes on it. Morna is the Cape Verdean and Brazilian form, and is popular even in Portuguese, sharing the stage with fado.  The blues, whatever style you prefer, is about life, and life is not always fun and games.

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