The island nation of São Tomé & Príncipe achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, not long after the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in Portugal, and nearly 500 years after the islands had first been colonised. The islands were used as a trading post in the triangular slave trade (until it was officially abolished in 1876), and so for many years were populated almost exclusively with slaves brought from Africa.
In the 1960s and 1970s, amongst the wave of African nations (but also Caribbeans and South Americans) finally getting their independence from colonial powers, a strong wind of hope was felt in these islands. As always in such circumstances, music expressed the optimism of the times and became a fundamental voice of liberation and counterculture.
“Léve, Léve” (“take it easy”) is the motto of these islands, but it could well have been ‘Ven En Levé’, the pan-Africanist song from Martinique’s Gratien Midonet which became a huge independentist anthem around the same time. Indeed, the traumatic History of São Tomé & Príncipe (and its “neighbour” Cabo Verde) is shared across the Atlantic with countries such as Brazil and Belize, as well as Caribbean islands and nations such as Guadeloupe, Martinique or Haïti. As diverse as they are, the music genres that emerged from these areas have many connections and similarities, as they absorbed influences from both Africa (West and Central) and Europe in order to create their own idiosyncratic styles and rhythms.
Despite being the second smallest country in Africa, the music heritage from São Tomé & Príncipe is incredibly rich and varied, starting with the instantly recognisable music style puxa: a truly original island rhythm, refined mixture of various musical components from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Elements of merengue and semba (from Angola), cadence, kompas and zouk (Caribbeans), highlife (Ghana), rumba and soukous (Congo) and coladeira (Cabo Verde) can all be heard throughout this fantastic compilation. It is a sound fiercely proud of its island heritage, sung in criollo and other local dialects and using distinctive local rhythms with irresistible dance appeal.
These tracks are indeed straight up party music but always with unique twists. While some of the most well known bands are already familiar to the dance-floors of BATB and AOF (Africa Negra’s Mino bô bé quacueda and Sangazuza’s Sun Malé), the rest of these artists are mostly unknown outside of these islands and the diaspora, and the original records are especially hard to find. The relentless sunny groove of Pedro Lima’s Nga ba compensadora for instance could only previously be found (or not!) on a local cassette.
Hands off to curator Thomas Bignon (who also wrote the extensive liner notes in the accompanying booklet) and Bongoe Joe for releasing this comp, a fantastic introduction to these incredible grooves and rhythms, the first of its kind to put focus on the golden age of these island’s sounds.
Listen to Africa Negra "Mino bô bé quacueda" here: https://tinyurl.com/3c4be4fc