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2017 Folk Fest Pick: Legendary Accordionist Bitori Leads Upbeat Dance Music From Cape Verde



Perhaps it is funaná’s earthy exuberance that caused it to be banned by Cape Verde’s colonial overlords. It’s the polar opposite of the Cape Verde’s better known morna ballads, popularized by the late Caesaria Evora. Morna is a close cousin of Portuguese fado, full of reflective regret.

Funaná is up-tempo, propulsive, accordion and percussion-propelled dance music. At nearly 80, Bitori, aka Victor Tavares, survived the ban and decades of global obscurity to become the music’s foremost proponent. Along with an all-star band, featuring singer Chanda Gracioso, he brings funaná to the folk festival.

The music reflects Cape Verde, made up of 10 volcanic islands 350 miles off the west coast of Africa, with a rich history as cultural crossroads. “Five hundred years ago, it was uninhabited,” says Bitori manager Miriam Brenner. “It is literally in the middle of the trade routes, a port where any sailing nation — British, Dutch, French — would come through. It was a trading port, a lot of people came through.” It was a key place to resupply. In an era where salt was the preservative equivalent of refrigeration, there was an entire island called Sal (salt). “The people are mixed race, proud of being creole.”

Bitori is an innovator within the funaná tradition, playing the accordion melodically against a driving bass line. “People were not playing like this before,” Brenner says. Not that there is much record of the earlier version. Until the islands achieved independence in 1975, performing in the genre, or dancing the eponymous dance, were illegal. “I asked Bitori how he played it in those times. He said ‘carefully’” Brenner recalls. “There was a big prison on Santiago Island. They would just throw you in.”

The band’s debut record, “Bitori: Legend of Funaná,” was recorded in 1997 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, a city with so many Cape Verdeans in that some call it “the 11th island.” But it took a long time to get the show on the road. “We had our first show in June of last year,” Brenner says. “We have been in 15 countries since.”

What should audiences expect? “I compare it to zydeco,” Brenner says, “which also has the accordion but a different creole sound. There are drums and bass, but the cowbell and a metal scraper have a timbre that reflects labor in the fields. Even when the songs are about heartache and hardship, funaná is positive. You don’t need to know anything about it to have fun.”

Bitori featuring Chando Graciosa performs Friday, Oct. 13, from 9 to 10 p.m. at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion. It also performs Saturday, Oct. 14, from 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. at the Community Foundation Stage, and on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion.


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