Lisbon-born Cape Verdean songstress Carmen Souza has it all: excellent repertoire, a mesmerizing, expressive and versatile voice that glides effortlessly through a huge range of registers, and a spellbinding, charismatic stage presence. Whether she is singing the plaintive morna (the Cape Verdean variation of the blues) or an exuberant batuco, Souza is always convincing owing to her swingy jazz sense of timing and her virtuoso voice full of nuances from the highest to the lowest notes she sings. Singing in her ancestors’ Creole language and mixing traditional African and Cape Verde rhythms with contemporary jazz influences she creates a unique sound that is all her own.
Carmen has been a professional performer for almost half of her life. Carmen embraced her Cape Verdean roots from an early age: her father, a sailor, played the guitar while Carmen was also part of a Lusophone gospel choir in her teens.
But it wasn’t until she was studying translation at a university in Lisbon that she discovered the sounds that would forge her voice: the music of jazz greats, from singers like Ella Fitzgerald, who use their voices as instruments, to soloists like Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and, most symbolically, Horace Silver. Theo Pas’cal, one of the best bass players in Portugal, has nurtured Carmen’s talent and their mutual inspiration has produced a fullsome embrace of Cape Verdean music while simultaneously re-thinking, re-visiting and expanding its scope and possibilities.
“Cape Verde was colonized by Portugal, but a lot of other European, African, and Arabic influences came afterward. It’s a mestizo culture,” Souza reflects. “I came to discover that the songs that people sang in the fields on Cape Verde have the same pentatonic scale identified with the blues,” in part due to a shared history of slavery. Carmen points to the intriguing, yet rarely explored connection between American jazz and Cape Verdean music, something she felt almost immediately.