Bitori: Legend of Funaná – The Forbidden Music of the Cape Verde Islands

Accordion-fueled revolution reigns on the first worldwide release of an album of Cabo Verdean classics.
Legend of Funaná: The Forbidden Music of the Cape Verde Islands
Analog Africa

Revolution and dance go hand in hand on the first-ever worldwide release of funaná artist Bitori’s legendary 1997 album Legend of Funaná, his first and only recording to date in a decades-long career of fighting colonial rule through lively accordion tunes.

At first, it’s hard to imagine such a bright, colorful style of music being forbidden anywhere outside of that town from Footloose; each song is quick, earthy, and uncomplicated. Still, funaná artists could expect to be jailed and tortured for their performances under Portuguese colonial rule in Cabo Verde, as strong a symbol as it is and was of national identity and the desire for independence from imperialism. Bitori’s songs, now classics, laid the foundation for the movement with raw and rural sounds and repetitive choruses. Simple melodies and unstoppable rhythms back Chando Graciosa’s spirited vocals, the perfect combination for eight explosive songs of struggle.

The accordion, of course, is not for everyone. Many will appreciate Bitori’s historical relevance but get bored after the first few squeezes of the box, as tight and squeaky clean as they often sound. There’s no getting around this on Legend of Funaná, an album completely dependent on that instrument, nor should there be. Everything about funaná is loud and proud, especially those keys.

Opening track “Bitori Nha Bibinha” hits the ground running, a veritable whirlwind that hits dizzying speeds and sees Graciosa’s voice at its strongest and loudest. It embraces the best of funaná, the tropical percussion and droning melody that make it easy to dance to, a perfect introduction to the genre. From that point forward, moods vary. “Rabelado” has a mid-tempo groove to it, while “Cruz Di Pico” is aggressive and agitated, playing at a fever pitch while words pouring from the depths of Graciosa’s soul. Backing vocals also enter on “Cruz Di Pico” to further enhance the sense of community and strength throughout the album, making it a little clearer just how funaná could have stirred up the masses and posed a threat to their invaders.

Other tracks are a little slower, and it’s best when these fade into the background. “Munana” sways with a touch of melancholy, and while it’s prettier than many of the other tracks, it’s also too slow to dance to, losing charm with each iteration of the main musical line. It’s easier on the ears to turn those tracks down after a while.

Legend of Funaná ends with some great build up and a wonderful high note in the form of “Didi Di Réz”, where the interplay between syncopated drumbeats and vocals dominates and fascinates. At times on this final song, Graciosa sounds like a Cuban big band singer from the 1930s, soaring above the accordion with his own graceful melody.

The funaná sound is a specific one, an important one to the islands of Cabo Verde, and one never better than coming from the fiery, masterful hands of Bitori. One origin story states that funaná developed when the Portuguese tried to spread Western music styles by introducing the accordion, an attempt to pull Cabo Verde closer, culturally, to Europe. If that is the truth, it’s a plan that backfired gloriously. Legend of Funaná may not be an album good for heavy, start-to-finish listening, but it demonstrates the full range and spirit of the funaná form with flying colors.

RATING 6 / 10