While a working understanding of the varied diaspora of the Cape Verde islands in the context of late 20th century post-colonial Africa and pre-EU continental Europe isn’t necessary to appreciate the idiosyncratic electronic funk of Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from Cape Verde Islands (Ostinato Records), it doesn’t hurt either. A dizzying, hyperactive set focusing on a very specific amalgam of traditional African and European folk music with proto-techno dancefloor influences, the Cape Verde sound captured here is as much a political and geographical story as it is a musical one.
The good folks at Ostinato saw fit to include a lengthy, dense booklet filled with not only detailed notes on all the artists, but also a series of essays explaining the historical parameters surrounding the music made on a tiny archipelago 350 miles off the west coast of Africa. To make a rather long and complex story short, when Cape Verde was liberated from Portugal in the mid-1970s, there was a wave of migration to various European cities, Lisbon chief among them, but also Paris, Rome, and even Rotterdam. On the islands themselves, a desire to quickly integrate into an ever-evolving global economy—essentially to modernize— led to an obsessive fascination with any and all technological advancements in music. Traditional musical styles popular on the islands and throughout the diaspora were quickly flooded with all manner of synthesizers, sequencers, and other digital and analog tools. The result was a sort of folk-infused, EDM funk that had a global appeal and a genuine cross-border aesthetic. It was also a triumphant symbol of a nation establishing its own voice after decades of colonial rule.
It’s a fascinating story, but it wouldn’t be nearly as potent if the music wasn’t so intriguing. As one might expect, the synthesizer dominates here, and as is pointed in the set’s epic liner notes, traditional instruments, like the accordion for example, are supplanted by this far more modern, hip, and forward-looking instrument. While many tracks still maintain the sort of taught, transmuted Jimmy Nolan–style funk licks found in a great deal of African music from various countries, what gives this set its identity is the artists’ wholehearted, head-first dive into the technological possibilities combined with a fierce loyalty to traditional styles. The Cape Verde islands aren’t a monolithic culture, either. Each island has its own distinct identity, and yet all are informed in varying ways by centuries of imported Portuguese culture, as well as that of other European nations Cape Verde migrants experienced on their journeys to and fro. Combine that all with the cosmic funk of early-80s electronics and you get a polyglot mash-up of cultures that makes New Orleans seem tame by comparison.
Infectious, danceable, and unique, the sounds here can be experienced satisfyingly on that level alone. However, when seen within the larger context of the political history of a country that many can’t find on map, it becomes a truly enriching listening experience. Not everybody asks for a history lecture with their dance compilations, but sometimes they should.