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Kavita Shah finds her own 'morna' in ‘Cape Verdean Blues’

Kavita Shah
Kavita Shah

When I first hit the “play” button to have a listen to Kavita Shah’s new release, Cape Verdean Blues, I was immediately transported to that island country in Africa. Shah's vocals are simply breathtaking.  I recently spoke with Kavita about the album that pays tribute to the music of Cesária Évora, the legendary Cape Verdean singer known as the “Barefoot Diva.” Kavita captures the essence of Évora's music, reimagined with her own flair while also bringing her own unique perspective to the songs. The album is a beautiful and moving tribute to one of the greatest singers of our time. It features a collection of traditional Cape Verdean mornas and coladeiras,and she is joined by a stellar cast of musicians, including Cape Verdean guitarist Bau (Évora's former musical director) and percussionist Miroca Paris.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: Before we talk about your new album, Cape Verdean Blues, I want to find a little bit more about you and share with our audience. You were raised in Manhattan. You're a city girl. I understand that your journey to jazz began with a very dear friend of mine, one of the hardest working saxophonists in the business, and he certainly is a New York legend, Patience Higgins. Could you share a bit about your journey to jazz and what inspired you to become a vocalist and a composer?

Kavita Shah: Yes, Patience was my neighbor for many years growing up in New York, and he was my first real live connection to jazz. I had it on the records. I grew up singing in the Young People's Chorus of New York City, a professional children's choir. At the age of 10, the two songs that I was obsessed with that we were doing were “A Tisket a Tasket” and “How High the Moon.” That got me into Ella and Billie and the early era big band sound at that time. But Patience was this real live person who carried a saxophone and who would play at events. And that was very special.

Years later, when I decided that I think I really want to do this—where do I go, what do I do? The first thing I thought of was to look up Patience. I spent a lot of my 20s in the Lenox Lounge and in those places in Harlem that have closed down, like St. Nick’s. I consider it such an important part of my education and my understanding of jazz music, because when I went to Manhattan School of Music, nobody was going to those places. Everybody was going downtown to the Village Vanguard and to Smalls. That history was so rich and around us. It was still there then. It was still very palpable to be able to go in and hear people who had played with. X, Y, and Z and to feel a sense of community and also a sense of culture, and a connection to the culture. I think that was very important for me. Those are my New York jazz roots.

Those are good roots, girl. That is the real training right there. You cut your teeth with the real cats and in venues like St. Nick's Pub and Lenox Lounge. How many young singers can even say that now?

You know what I loved about those places too and about really singing for that community is they really appreciated singers. Obviously, there's a connection with the church and with the history of jazz, but it felt like they would be so mean to instrumentalists that would come and sit in. But if you could sing, you got respect. And for me, it felt like if I get that respect, then I did my job. Then I'm doing the right thing. Or that I have something in me that's worth continuing with and pursuing.

That’s a hard audience and they take no prisoners. You graduated with honors for sure. Tell me about who some of your musical influences were growing up. Did you come straight out of the bag listening to Ella and Sarah or were you influenced by other singers growing up?

Not so much Sarah for me, but Ella and Billy were really my early influences in jazz. I sang all kinds of music under the sun in this choir. My influences also started to vary. I remember when the Buena Vista Social Club CD came out, I think I was maybe 14. It was Bob Marley, Buena Vista Social Club, Lauryn Hill… I started getting into Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Very eclectic and all over the place. And I grew up listening to hip hop. Hip hop was really important to me, especially New York hip hop, like Biggie and Nas. That was a rich part of my oral education, but I was also studying classical piano. And then in the choir, we were singing contemporary works by modern composers. We were singing music from around the world and in 20 different languages. So, it's only natural that I sort of started gravitating towards different things, but in jazz, Ella was number one and front and center. In my house, Frank Sinatra was also quite popular.

I love the fact that you speak nine languages. That is pretty impressive.You have made some significant contributions to the worlds of jazz and world music. You have recorded projects with Benin-born Lionel Loueke. You did an album called Folk Songs of Naborea.  You did a duo recording, Interplay, with French bassist Francois Moutin. How do you approach collaborating with musicians from different cultures?

I think, among musicians, we all kind of have a similar culture. On paper, Lionel’s from Benin and Francois was born in France and I'm Indian American, but we are all living in New York. Even working now with the Cape Verdean musicians, for example, where you don't have the same culture or language or they don't live in New York, I think once the music starts, there's this sort of ease of flow that happens. I think in a way like Francois would consider himself a New Yorker, he's also an American citizen. He's lived here for 30 years. So they become points of reference. Like with Francois, maybe we're going to be more likely to do a French song because it's a connection that we share. It's a language that we share and it's something that's there. For example, Francois has worked a lot with Middle Eastern musicians. So there's a lot of microtonal stuff that he can do on the bass. I picked up a song in Turkey that we adapted to the duo and it's great doing it with him because he can really do the microtones and the semitones and so on. And similar with Lionel, it's like knowing that he has this certain palette, whether it's certain songs that I know he's done with Herbie Hancock, or whether it's… I know that he'll understand this kind of rhythm or music from the diaspora. Our famous song together is this Afro Brazilian song called “Oju Oba,” but it's informed by drumming that comes from Ifa, the religion which comes from Benin. Even though it's Brazilian, there's this lineage that he can tap into.

My next album, which will come out in maybe a year and a half, is with Miguel Zenon. I wrote a song for him. It's with my jazz quintet, and we're both big fans of Latin American literature, and I know that he's done a whole album for Julio Cortázar. So I wrote a song inspired by my favorite short story by Julio Cortázar for Miguel. It becomes more points of connection. I think once the music's going, we're not thinking about like, “Oh, we're different.” It's just all music.

And it's beautiful. Cesaria Evora, who passed away in 2011, was a Cape Verdean singer known for her rich haunting voice and her performances of morna, a genre of music from Cape Verde. Her songs were often devoted to things like love, homesickness, nostalgia, and the history of the Cape Verdean people. She was also known for her habits. I think she was nicknamed the Barefoot Diva for performing barefoot and stopping her performances to smoke and take a drink on stage. How did you first discover Cesaria Evora's music and how did her music impact you?

I was in college. I was learning Portuguese at the time and music's always been a part of my language learning and absorbing a culture. I was very into Brazilian music from about 16, I was very into Jobim and Joao Gilberto and Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz. That part was already sort of solid. I heard her music and it kind of threw me for a loop. Like, what is this sound? It's so different from anything I've heard. A few months later, I was living abroad in Brazil, in Salvador de Bahia. There's a Black consciousness day in Brazil in November. There was a festival and they brought artists from all around the diaspora to play. This was a few blocks from my house and I got to go walk out and hear Cesaria.

It was one of those performances that really changed my life. I was just 20 and seeing her perform, she was smoking, she was barefoot, she was drinking whiskey. She was not overly smiling or entertaining. There was just this sort of radical acceptance of who she was. I think to see a woman and a Black woman just owning that and to see the power that she had, to see that she didn't have to be entertaining in order to get anybody's attention. She could just be totally herself. That really spoke to me. I knew that I wanted to do that. Whatever she's doing, I want to be part of it. Also, one day I want to discover this place, Cape Verde.

Tell us about visiting Cape Verde. And you also met Cesaria's music director and guitarist who's collaborating with you on Cape Verdean Blues. Tell us about your visit and meeting Bao, and what your relationship was that led to the collaboration of the recording.

We have one more collaborator on the album who played with Cesaria for many years. He's a percussionist named Miro Paris. We were just on tour in the U.S. for three weeks and we discovered that he was playing on that gig in Brazil. That was a really special kind of full circle moment. Fast forward many years. I went to get my Master’s degree in jazz. I started a career in jazz. I put out two albums. I was touring and traveling. I needed a break from New York and I went on a sabbatical trip for three months in Africa.

I don't know how I did this because I can't imagine doing it now. It required a lot of organization. And one of the things I say about New York is it doesn't let you go, even to go away for 24 hours or two days, it's this place where you're like, “Oh, but I have this to do.” And I do. It fights you, until you actually leave. Then when you're out, you're like, “Why didn't I do this more often?” You need to recharge. I don't know how I got out for three months, but I did. I had a bunch of friends living in different parts of Africa and also some weddings.

So we went on a huge trip and we went with a one way ticket to Cape Verde, traveling from Ghana and we’re like, “I know we have to be at this place at this time, but let's just see what it's like over there and if we like it, we can stay.” I decided to turn my phone off when I got there. This is a place that means so much to me. I don't want to experience this while also going on social media. I want to be there.

Everything I was doing, I was going back to the basics. I think because when I started to do research in Brazil, that was one of the things I had to do. They dropped us in the middle of the city. This was a training program I was doing. They were like, “You have to get to this place, just figuring it out, just talking to people, just kind of figuring out the bus system, no phones. Just figuring it out and relying on yourself and your skills and practicing. There's something about engaging with people in that way and understanding a city that way.

I went to a music store. There are famous luthiers on the island, so I asked them for the contact of a luthier. I said I wanted to buy a cavaquinho. They were like, “Sure you can go to this guy.” The address was behind the cemetery. I'm like, “Okay, great, how am I going to get there?” They said, “Well, you can take the bus here.” So I went to the bus stop. I'm thinking, how am I going to get to this place?” Then a bus came that says cemeterio. So I'm like, “Okay, I guess that's the bus.” I asked them, “I'm going behind the cemetery. Does anybody know this guy?”

Finally, I get to the atelier of this very lovely luthier named Aniceto Gomez. I got a cavaquinho from him and I said, “I'm on the island for a few weeks and I want to learn, I want to learn something about the music. Is there someone who could teach me cavaquinho?” He said, “Well, we have the best cavaquinho player in all of Cape Verde on this island, on Salve San.” He gave me Bao’s number at this time. I don't know that Bao is Cesaria's musical director. I don't know that he's this genius multi-instrumentalist guitar player.

It was a bit of back and forth. You don't schedule things over there. That's not the vibe. It's like, “Oh, can we do a lesson?” “Sure. Maybe tomorrow. Call me tomorrow and we'll see.” So it was a few days of that, but I would say within the first week, I got to meet Bao and I go into his beautiful house.

I look on the wall and there's this beautiful portrait of Cesaria. I'm kind of like, “Where are, what's happening?” As soon as he started playing, I was very quickly putting my cavaquinho down and just wanting to sing with him because he is really very special. He's a self-taught guitarist. He's a virtuoso. He plays guitar, violin, ukulele, cavaquinho. His father was a famous luthier. His profession before touring the world was also making instruments. He makes his own instruments and is also a pillar of the history of the music. In terms of learning traditional music, getting to work with him, I was just immersed in the real Lenox Lounge equivalent. We just became friends.

We started playing and jamming and sharing music with no expectations, no plans for a record at all. We ended up doing a concert that summer. Then a few years later, we got invited to do some festivals in town and some bigger concerts. I went back on a research trip with the Jerome Foundation. I had a grant to formally do research. We were just hanging out and chilling. And then it was like, “Yeah, we have all this repertoire. Maybe we should just record something for fun in the studio.” The idea was to do not even a demo. Just to record the work, because I didn't know when I was going to see him again. I didn't know when I was going to come back. I don't know if he was going to come over here. He doesn't come to the US, really. Very quickly we had 10 songs. Then it was like, “Okay, I guess this is a record.” We then went to Lisbon and we added percussion.

I know it's a long story, but I think it's a beautiful story because it's happened very naturally. Dee Dee Bridgewater said this to me: “You followed your spirit.” I'm in New York. I'm not that person, you know? So I feel like I have both sides within me, but I'm also kind of in awe of this experience because it happened in a very natural way that you sort of feel it was meant to be.

Well, it sounds absolutely beautiful. One of the tracks is “Flor di nha Esperança.” I read that it took you about four years to get that song written. You felt like Cesaria was trying to teach you something. What was she trying to teach you? What was the lesson that you learned?

There are a few things going on there. “Flor di nha Esperanca” is a morna, this very mournful song. We were just in Chicago and there was a blues man, Billy Branch, who went on right before us and he was talking about the blues. I was like, “Oh my God, the morna is the blues.” I don't know how I never used that phrase or that word before, but it's all about feeling.

This particular song is about people dying early. The first lyric is “If I knew that young people could die, I never would have loved anybody in this world.” My dad died when he was 46. I was quite young at the time. It was unexpected. It was a heart attack and I lost all my four grandparents right after him. There's this kind of personal thing about my own history there.

My standards for the song were very high because it's my morna. I think it's something that I really need and I know how to do. I wasn't happy with a good performance. It had to be excellent. I recorded it in Mandela on Cape Verde. I recorded it again when we did the guitars in Lisbon. I recorded it a third time in New York. And I was still like, “No, no, it's not there.” I just took a step back and studied her phrasing and tried to copy it and then went back and found my own thing. I think what I took from her was, one, I think she was kind of saving it for me because I went through some other losses and it was kind of like I needed this song at that time, after COVID. It makes sense that I'm singing it now.

It was like a gift to me to have that. But also what I'm putting together that I learned from her is even though it's this really heart wrenching subject matter, there's an equanimity she has when she sings that song. It’s the same as she does when she sings “Angola,” which is like a party song. “If I knew young people could die, I never would have loved anybody in this world.” I think there was something about letting go of having to hold the story. Or that the song has to be perfect, but just if I knew this and taking life as it is right where it's like there is there's heartache and there's blessings and both get the same approach from her. That translates to the phrasing or to the delivery. I felt what I had to learn was relaxing into it and really accepting myself in the process. Being with the song, letting the song happen, not having to hold it.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.