For Kavita Shah, The Voice Came First

By Shauna Barbosa

Friday, October 27, 2023

While a slow road to journey, the Cape Verdean experience will always lead you to yourself. There is a tale for all things: a folklore, a drink, a remedy, an ambiguous neighborhood, a dance, a cemetery, a word that must be said with a certain tone or else you run the risk of misunderstanding. Behind the food, the instruments, the music—there are the people. Most migrating, some staying, all moving in and out of the sound of morabeza when it rains, the sound of sodade at every rise of the sun.

In 2014, jazz musician Kavita Shah found herself amidst the vibrant heart of Mindelo, a city steeped in artistic heritage. It’s home to the revered songstress Cesária Évora, the “Queen of Morna,” whose profound influence blesses Shah’s new album, Cape Verdean Blues.

It was her first trip to Cape Verde, and she wanted to buy a kavakinhu, a small four-stringed guitar. Guided by the welcoming locals at the music shop, Harmonia, Kavita set out to find a man who could assist her. His whereabouts were rather unusual—“Atrás de Cemitério”—meaning behind the cemetery. “You can take the bus over there,” the locals said. Uncertain about the route, Kavita walked across the seaside street, relieved to spot a bus displaying the destination, “Cemitério.” She hopped on and upon arrival, the bus driver asked someone on the street for the location of instrument maker Aniceto Gomes.

Gomes led Kavita to Bau, lauded as the best kavakinhu player in all of Cape Verde. Bau’s talents had graced stages worldwide alongside the “Barefoot Diva,” none other than Cesária Évora.

Shauna Barbosa: What was the experience of crafting Cape Verdean Blues?

Kavita Shah: The voice came first. We recorded in Cape Verde at first and there were limited resources in terms of a studio. We were only able to record one instrument at a time. We recorded my voice with Bau’s scratch guitar and a click. And then we met in Lisbon a few months later and he recorded guitars on top of my voice. It was a difficult production to figure out. The only thing that was a blessing is that I was completely in the Cape Verdean atmosphere, the music, the songs, the phrasing of the mornas, the essence was there. I was going to the beach in the morning then to the studio and sometimes back to the beach in the afternoon. I don't know that I would have gotten those vocals in New York.

SB: I’m wondering about the slowness of the islands and its effect on the album’s completion. For instance, even a simple trip to the bank can span three hours (I’ve been there!), a mix of frustration and odd delight. What felt urgent about this body of work?

KS: This music doesn’t come out of urgency, which is rare for me. It’s precisely by being there that I was able to slow down and it’s through slowing down that things were able to happen. Like anywhere, it’s not all roses. On the other side of not being able to make appointments and have structured meetings, there’s also this sort of magical spontaneous stuff that happens. You can just go in the street and see people, or you can just take your car and visit upon people. There’s interconnectedness and a sense of community. 

I think what’s felt urgent is what I’ve avoided most: sharing the album. It’s scary because this experience has been private for me, my antidote to my New York life. Cape Verde is a place that’s brought me so much joy and peace. There’s a part of me that’s scared of ruining the freedom of sitting and singing with musicians in a jam session where no one knows who I am.

The urgency is letting go the same way the island and Cesária taught me to let go. It’s not holding on to the experience no matter how precious it is. Be vulnerable, share it, and move on.

SB: I am constantly curious about what makes jam sessions possible.

KS: You need trust in yourself as well as trust in a new situation or new person. Being willing to fall without a net, that’s what improvisation is. As a jazz musician, I’ve learned to step in the direction of discomfort and just go all in. It’s also about what happens in the atmosphere and with the other people. The more open, in tune, and empathetic you are, the more you’ll receive. Someone like Bau, for example. His hands are so special. He really engages. He’ll look at you and encourage you. I could feel that he could feel what I’m feeling or trying to do.

SB: What excites you most about your upcoming shows in the States alongside band members Bau, Jorge Almeida, Miroca Paris, and Fantcha?

KS: I’m looking forward to sharing my life here the way they’ve shared their culture and life with me. I get to share with an American audience, this beautiful music and these beautiful musicians.

SB: The Cape Verdean term “nha terra” meaning “my land” or “my homeland,” holds particular significance for Kriolus, especially those who have migrated. How has your connection to the islands influenced your perception of ‘home’?

KS: I feel very touched by the reception that I get from the people, they really give with their full hearts. It never feels like a vacation. Migration in Cape Verde, it’s almost like a fabric of the nation, given how isolated it is, given the prominence of shipping and fishing industries and people leaving. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, there’s this similar feeling that’s a part of my life and my fabric and my existence that feels normalized in Cape Verde in a way that here in the US, it feels like it’s what makes you different. 

Rootlessness in Cape Verde is what people know and what’s expressed, I think, in the music. But it’s also a very natural thing, universally, to be on the move. Cape Verde has given me a sense of home by connecting to a place where home is based on transience and migration and flow. It’s a way of seeing myself and accepting my story or understanding of my story, normalizing that I could have the same story with a different geographical experience.

SB: How would you personally define “sodade”?

KS: Having nostalgia for something you can’t have back. It’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore. My dad died, my grandparents died, and they were my link to India. I don’t have any connections to their version of India. I have a feeling that only lives in my heart and in my memories and there’s nothing I can do to piece that together.

SB: What song on the album was the most challenging to record?

KS: I feel something deep when I sing my favorite morna, “Flor di nha Esperança.” Part of the challenge was fighting myself because I was like, “this is my jam.” I needed the recording to be what I knew the song meant to me. The other part of it was understanding the phrasing—because in jazz, we tend to have longer phrases. I was holding words longer and every time I recorded it, I was not happy with it. It was a process—when I really studied Cesária’s phrasing on the song, her phrases are very short. She’s singing these heart-wrenching heavy words with so much lightness. I felt I had to do it justice because I related to the song so much. I lost my dad young, and the first line is, “If young people could die, I never would have loved anyone in the world.”

I felt what Cesária was trying to teach me with this song is to accept myself and let the experience of the song go. That was her gift to me, accepting there’s no perfect way to sing it, it was about letting go. And I healed, I think, some of that grief through that process.

SB: In what ways has her delivery and performance style influenced your own approach as a performer?

KS: When I saw her perform live, I was 20 years old and living in Salvador, Brazil. I was witnessing a beautiful Black woman, who was not conforming to the typical industry beauty standards, body type, dress, anything. She was not smiling; she was not entertaining people. She was so radically herself and yet she had everybody’s attention, everybody in the band and everybody in the audience. You couldn’t help but be wrapped in that moment. That tremendous power came not from her doing anything, but by being herself.

In terms of what I’ve taken from that—I’m still taking cues on how to accept myself and how to be okay with the performer that I am. Not answering to the little criticisms. The most powerful version of me as an artist is the authentic version of me. It’s not the best voice version of me. It’s not the best writing version of me. It’s when I’m comfortable in my skin. When I’m having fun, when I’m really experiencing the song, that’s the emotion that transmits to people. As a woman of color in the industry, you hear all the time what you’re not doing right. Self-acceptance for women happens over time and age. I think maybe the best performer I can be is on the other side of that journey.

About Shauna Barbosa

Shauna Barbosa is the author of the poetry collection Cape Verdean Blues (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, AGNI, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poetry Society of America, PBS Newshour, Lit Hub, Lenny Letter, and others. She was nominated for PEN America’s 2019 Open Book Award and was a 2018 Disquiet International Luso-American fellow. Shauna received her MFA from Bennington College in Vermont and has taught Creative Writing in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.