Gentle, heartrending melodies characterize Tcheka’s latest release, entitled Nu Monda or “weeding” in English. The album is an homage both to the farming traditions of the artist’s native island of Santiago and the ways in which he selects from and cultivates traditional rhythms. As explained in the CD’s liner notes, “nu djunta mon” means “working together”: “There is a lot of work, but if we all get together we can do it”. Notwithstanding the fact that Tcheka projects a solitary image of himself on the cover of his latest release, there can be no doubt that his sounds are indebted to the rich, musical traditions of his homeland.
Just as the people of Santiago need to work together in order to survive, Santiago’s musicians have had to struggle together to continue longstanding, musical traditions in the face of Portugese colonial oppression. Drums may have been banned during the colonial period by the Church and the colonial administration, but the region’s women in particular resisted colonialism and adapted traditional beats to contemporary life. They did so first with the help of bundled loincloths and, later, with plastic bags which when tapped produced a multiplicity of sounds. Tcheka follows suit, affirming a history of women’s resistance and showing how their musical traditions might take new directions.
This is not a matter of appropriation; to argue that Tcheka simply appropriates a female tradition for the purposes of furthering his own social commentary would be to neglect the complex, cultural traditions of Santiago and proximate regions. Traditional rhythms have always undergone change in the Cape Verdean archipelago, and Santiago, considered the most “African” of the ten islands, is no exception. In response to colonialism’s culture, which attempted to eradicate traditional customs by restricting the use of musical instruments, the women of Santiago transformed everyday items into percussive tools to voice their protest and express their collective identity. Tcheka takes their legacy seriously, transposing the women’s batuque rhythms to guitar in a way that respects rather than repossesses their unique take on modernity. His is a woeful yet suprisingly energetic butuque subtly laced with funk and other elements gathered from popular African forms.
There is also a great emphasis placed on the storytelling or “griot” traditions of Africa. “Amizadi Si” tells the story of a friendship gone bad, “Djan Bedja” tells the story of a man left to age alone after his sons have gone to study abroad, and “Talulu” tells the story of Fogo Island’s traditional customs. Other tracks tell different stories, each a snapshot of life lived in a region that has encountered numerous difficulties. Tcheka’s powerful voice provides the means of narration. His ability to articulate a wide range of notes, along with his penchant for emotional expression, make for an album that can only be described as exquisite. All in all, Nu Monda paints a nuanced picture of Cape Verde and the peoples who have courageously inhabited and continue to inhabit the archipelago. This is not the usual story of a traditional music gone global; instead, Tcheka’s album implicitly narrates the survival of traditional rhythms in the face of increasing globalization.
The second of Tcheka’s releases, Nu Monda builds on 2003’s Argui to articulate a need for the continuance of traditional music and, with it, the collective identity of a people who have experienced more than their share of change. Audiences in Cape Verde and beyond have responded well to Tcheka’s revivalist project: the album won a Radio France International Music of the World Award in 2005 for Artist of the Year, and Tcheka himself has been christened in popular discourse as one of the world’s greatest “pop-griots” or storytellers. Tcheka’s manager Jose da Silva is quoted as saying that “Nobody knows where Tcheka’s style came from”. In his aim to preserve the structure of traditional music, Tcheka does manage to establish a style that is altogether new. Nothing could be more fitting in an artist who hails from a region where music has always continued in radically novel ways.