It is not every day that someone starts up a recording company for just one artist, but this is what José Da Silva did in 1980 for the late Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, as Alecia McKenzie explains.
The Paris-based Lusafrica label has become a force in the music industry, credited with bringing Cape Verdean music to a global audience and with promoting talented young African performers. Lusafrica was named “Best independent label of the year” at the last WOMEX (World Music Expo) international world music event, praised for continuing to release quality music in a tough economic climate.
The company has produced about 230 albums to date, but the global financial crisis and the changing nature of the music business have forced Da Silva to find ways to stay afloat as the recording industry tries to adapt to a sea change.
“We live in hard times because we’ve lost 70 per cent of our business due to music pirating and illegal downloads,” he says. “We’ve had to take tough economic measures, letting some people go, and working with a very pared-down staff. What we do produce is done as economically as possible.”
Lusafrica’s artist list is diverse and is not restricted to Portuguese speakers, including performers such as Pierre Akendengue of Gabon, Sally Nyolo of Cameroon and Bonga of Angola. One of the label’s bestselling artists is the Malian singer-guitarist Boubacar Traoré, but Da Silva also keeps his ear open for new talent, and the label has welcomed a host of emerging performers from various countries. All these artists owe something to Cesaria Evora, whom Da Silva met some 25 years ago in a cafe in Portugal.
“In 1987, I was on vacation in Lisbon with my wife and there was a woman who sang at a restaurant that we liked to go to. I fell in love with her voice,” Da Silva recalls in an exclusive interview with New African. “We started speaking, and she told me about her life – she didn’t have a manager, a recording contract or anything. She was just singing in bars and was planning to go back to Cape Verde the following week.”
This was Evora, then 46 years old and going through a difficult patch. Da Silva, 28 years old himself at the time, felt he had to do something although he had no concrete plans. In a moment of inspirational daring, he asked the singer: “Why don’t you come back to France with me?” After some hesitation, the singer said: “Okay, I’ll come.” When they met, Da Silva was an employee of SNCF, the French railway company, while working as a musician and artist promoter on the side. He did not have his own business but had many contacts in the music industry. Evora moved to France at the end of 1987 and stayed with Da Silva and his family. He organised parties in the Cape Verdean community so that people could hear her sing.
“Everyone loved her voice,” he says with a smile. “And the same thing happened when we went to the Netherlands which also has a big Cape Verdean community. So I said, we need to make a record. I didn’t have any money and that meant one had to se debrouiller (improvise).”
The first step was to call on various musician friends to play on the record, and Da Silva worked his contact list and managed to pull together a group of enthusiastic instrumentalists. Once the recording was finished, though, a label was needed and that’s how the record company Lusafrica came about.
“We created the label for Cesaria,” Da Silva says. “With her, we began. We sold the record to Cape Verdeans, and then we did a second record. Each time, I went to see distributors to get them interested and that happened with the third record. But Lusafrica didn’t exist officially yet because the rules of my civil-service job prevented me from having a company. But we used the name Lusafrica anyway.”
Meanwhile, Evora was performing around France and gaining fans at each stop. The real breakthrough came at a festival in Angoulême, where her performance met with an ecstatic response. “Cesaria sang and the public was totally won over,”
Da Silva recalls. “I was in the audience and although I was already a fan, I realised there and then that she could reach the top. Nobody spoke while she sang. People were just in awe. Journalists started asking ‘who is this lady’, and everyone realised they’d seen and heard something and someone very special. Things happened quickly after that.”
For many, her voice immediately struck a personal chord, forged as it was by all the difficulties she had experienced in her life, “plus the cigarette and the alcohol” as she herself acknowledged in a 1997 interview. “I used to warm up my voice with liquor, now it’s with coffee,” Evora said then, even as she continued to smoke. In Japan, she made people in the audience cry.
The enchanting, melodious voice, unlike any other, also had an impact beyond the first listening. “I heard so many stories from people who said her music had touched them. I received a call once from someone whose husband had just died and she wanted to meet Cesaria to thank her because it was the music that helped him through his ordeal until the end,” Da Silva told New African.
“I think Cesaria had an affinity for people who suffered because she didn’t have an easy life herself,” he adds. “Right up to her death [in December 2011], she experienced all kinds of disappointments. Although she liked to laugh and make jokes, she didn’t have success or peace in her family life, even with the material success that came with her singing. Her joy came in giving to others. People said that her house in Cape Verde was like a doctor’s house, with everyone coming to see her and asking for help. That was the good side. As soon as she had money, she helped others.”
Da Silva, currently the CEO of Lusafrica, quit his civil-service job back in 1992 when “real” success came and Evora’s music was selling internationally. He could now create an official company, not just a label in name. But even the name was an error, as he admits. It was supposed to be Luso Africain, to reflect the Portuguese aspect of the music, but things got “lost in translation”.
With income at the label rising, Da Silva decided to start producing other artists in 1996. This wouldn’t be limited to just one type of music because although Da Silva himself was born in Cape Verde, he’d grown up in Dakar, Senegal, and he was familiar with the “rhythms from other African cultural groups”.
“I knew the different kinds of music,” he told New African. “This was in my ears, especially the Cuban rhythms which were the main sounds during my childhood. Thanks to Cesaria and what she achieved, we could start producing other artists.”
Despite the relatively high number of records released under the Lusafrica label, not many of the musicians are under full contract as Evora was, largely because of financial concerns. Currently only about six artists are under contract, as most of the label’s production is done on a per-album basis.
Compared with others, though, the company is lucky because when it made money, it invested in constructing a good studio, and its clientele is an asset as well. “What also helps us is that we have a niche market. We have always been able to work with small stores and although they’re disappearing, they still support us,” Da Silva says. “We also sell in the community. And we sell well at concerts where people buy the albums when they like an artist. The current business system is geared at big stores with all the marketing, promotion and publicity.
But that is expensive, and we can’t do it. We don’t have the machinery for it. So we stay with the community.”
He says that the WOMEX prize gives the label “visibility and credibility” but that it doesn’t change things economically. “What’s important for the buying public is the quality of our records,” he told New African.
The label has a branch in Cape Verde called Harmonia that works only with Cape Verdean artists (who include Nancy Veira, Chantre, Mario Lucio and Lura) while Lusafrica works with a variety of nationalities. The company also has recording studios in both Paris and in Cape Verde, but “it’s easy to record now in Africa in contrast to the past when you didn’t have many recording studios”, Da Silva says. Most of the mixing is done in Paris.
Da Silva believes that the future of the music business could improve but that it will take a while to regain some kind of balance. He says that countries of the South will have an increasing role to play as people are lifted out of poverty. “Music fans who don’t have the means to buy music now, are finding those means. They will be able to access the global market, but it takes time,” he explains.
“People use pirating to get music because sometimes they don’t have the means or can’t even find the music legally. For instance, to find a certain album in Dakar or Abidjan is not easy. There are not the same kinds of distribution systems as in the West, no major record stores except, perhaps, in South Africa, so it’s difficult. But thanks to the Internet, they can download music and so digital sales will increase. But it will take time for things to change,” he adds.
In the meantime, the label is using social media and blogs to promote their artists and is pushing ahead with seeking out new talent. Cape Verde, where it all began, has never seen as many singers as now, but many seem average when measured against Evora.
“Nearly all the Cape Verdean singers are being compared to Cesaria but people have to realise that it will probably be decades before someone like her comes along again,” Da Silva says. “She wasn’t just an artist, it was her whole persona. Today, the circumstances surrounding the new singers aren’t the same. If you haven’t lived her life, you can’t have that kind of emotion, even when you are a great singer. Everyone knows that there is no one as exceptional as Cesaria.”