Elida Almeida is a rising star in Cape Verde’s music scene. After releasing her debut album, Ora Doci Ora Margos, the young singer won Radio France International’s coveted “Prix Découvertes” in 2015 and went on to tour throughout Africa, Europe and North America for the following two years. She recently released Djunta Kudjer, a six-track EP in which she brings her deep, powerful voice to a diverse selection of compositions reflecting some of the musical discoveries from her recent travels. I met with Elida last month during the Atlantic Music Expo in Praia, the capital city of Cape Verde, on the island of Santiago. We spoke about her musical trajectory thus far and about the new directions that she is exploring in her latest album.
Last week’s Afropop Worldwide program provides a full report on the Atlantic Music Expo.
This interview was initially conducted in French.
Alejandro Van Zandt-Escobar: Welcome Elida, thanks for joining us. Can you introduce yourself quickly?
Elida Almeida: I’m Elida Almeida, I’m a Cape Verdean singer, and I’m 24 years old. I’ve released two albums so far.
Where did you grow up in Cape Verde?
I’m from the countryside, a village called Pedra Badejo. That’s where I grew up, where I spent a lot of my life. It’s in the interior part of the island of Santiago.
What inspired you musically when you were growing up?
Like I said, I grew up in a village in the countryside where to this day we don’t have electricity, so our main source of fun was radio. I started singing from a very young age thanks to the radio, I learned all of the lyrics to the songs I was hearing. I remember singing along to the radio every night. I think that was my first contact with music.
What were you hearing on the radio? Music from Cape Verde or from elsewhere?
Music from Cape Verde but also European, Brazilian and African music. Lots of soukous … lots of American hip-hop too. A bit of everything!
And during this time were you playing in bands or following some kind of musical training as well?
No, no, not at all. We don’t really have that tradition in Cape Verde, there’s not much of a music school here, but I studied a little--maybe not studied, but it really is a school--in the church. I was a psalmist in the church, and that helped me a lot. I also worked at a radio station for some time. I had a music program, and a talk show about love too. I think that also brought me a lot closer to music.
Did you work at a local radio station in your town?
No, it was in Maio, another island, the closest island to Santiago. I lived there for four years. That’s where I had my … [Pauses] my first son, my only son—and I was living there with my mother for some time, so that’s where everything really started.
And how did you start working in radio?
Like I said, I grew up with radio, and that always stuck with me. I liked what radio presenters would do, the way they spoke and used their voice. So I thought, “Why not?” and decided to try it out, and I enjoyed it a lot. I really enjoyed everything I did during that time in Maio. I hosted music shows every morning. And once a week I hosted a program where I would talk about love, I’d read poems and things like that. It was probably was made me decide to study Multimedia Communications in university. I enrolled in that course initially, but I’ve since dropped it.
To pursue a musical career?
No, because it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to study law. It’s always been my dream to be a lawyer or a prosecutor. So I stopped to think about my studies and see if one day I can study law. Now I’m in music, and I like everything I’m doing with it, but why not study law one day?
And since when did you start to work as a singer professionally?
It started in 2012, when I won two singing competitions, that we call “Everybody Sings.” It’s a tradition: Every year, each island organizes these contests. I won twice—I won in Santiago and I won in Maio as well. So it kind of got me thinking. I said, “Wow, why not?” People started telling me, “You have a beautiful voice, you sing very well.” People were encouraging me. Since then I started writing, I started writing about everything that happens around me, that happens in my life, and I think that people like it a lot. In Cape Verde, people say, “Oh, I prefer ‘Joana’” and someone else says, “No, I prefer ‘Nta Konsigui.’” They know my music.
Do you find that the messages in your songs resonate with people?
Yes, I talk a lot about our society, about everything that’s going on. In my first album, Ora Doci Ora Margos, I have a song about the day that my mother discovered that I was pregnant. I was 16 years old, so it was a big deal! But I also have songs that talk about my mother teaching me to always avoid married men. [Laughs] So it was really an album that was about my life. I have a song about my brother and his first love, I have one that talks about my dream of being married one day. In this new record I continue in the same direction, letting the people around me serve as inspiration. I write what I see, about what happens every day. And I sing it.
Was singing about your teenage pregnancy a taboo theme or were people open to it?
No, no, people are very open, because it happens too much in Cape Verde. It’s really for that reason that I wrote that song, because it’s a warning for everyone, for mothers and for their kids to be careful. I was 16 when I was pregnant, but now we have preteens—12, 13 years old—getting pregnant. So it’s really a problem, and we need to make people think about these issues. The song is called “Joana” and everyone likes it a lot, everyone sings along with it, but there’s also a message to be heard. I think that’s what’s most important. Music is beautiful, yes, but there’s also a message that makes you think afterwards.
Do you live back in Santiago now?
Yes, I’ve been living in Praia for the past three years.
Do you see much difference in musical traditions between Santiago and Maio?
Not really. It’s true that our country is made up of 10 islands, each with its own specificities and its own musical traditions. But like I said, Maio is the closest island to Santiago, so we have almost the same musical traditions. Batuk, funana, tabanka. On Maio we also have morna and coladeira. But overall, we listen to the same style of music there and here, and I’ve always stayed close to my roots and made funana, batuk and tabanka, all of the styles that I have here, in my skin.
How did the church impact you musically?
A lot of singers in Cape Verde come from the church. I think it’s the same thing around the world! I’ve heard that Beyoncé learned to sing in church, too. It’s a real school, you learn a lot of things from the sisters, lots of techniques. How to project one’s voice, how to harmonize … I’d really like to thank the church for all of that.
I saw that your song, “Nta Konsigui,” was chosen as the theme song for a Portuguese telenovela. How did that happen?
It was great, a real surprise for me, I didn’t expect a Portuguese TV station to say, “Hey, we want your music for our telenovela!” It was important because that song had already been well received in Cape Verde, but having it in the TV show gave us a different type of visibility. Now it has almost three million views on YouTube, and Portuguese people know all the lyrics to the song. It’s great.
Beyond that, what opportunities have you had for exposure in Europe and elsewhere in the world?
For the past two years, I traveled to a lot of countries to promote my first album. Holland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal…lots of European countries. We were in Japan too, in Canada, in the United States … everywhere. We won the 2015 “Prix Découvertes,” which led to an African tour. We traveled to 16 countries. It’s been two years full of adventures and discoveries.
What new musical directions have you been exploring since your last album?
Well, to start with, before leaving Cape Verde, I listened to a lot of radio. I was 21, I was making traditional music, with some other influences. I listen to a lot of music from other countries and that’s always been reflected in my compositions. But now it’s even more audible because I’ve traveled so much and discovered a lot of different types of music—new styles, new instruments. That’s very clear in my new record, Djunta Kudjer. I have a song called “Di Mi Ku Di Bo.” I was in Cuba in September, and it was fantastic, I really liked being in Havana, working with some extraordinary musicians. It’s the first time that I worked with an international producer. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we understand each other, and we made this song, which is beautiful. I also have a song called, “Era Mentira,” and it’s as though our trip through Africa—16 countries—is fit into a song. There are instruments from Mali, Morocco, and Ivory Coast all in that one song. It’s really a summary of those two years of traveling.
"Di Mi Ku Di Bo":
What’s the group that you work with here in Cape Verde like?
I write almost all of the songs. I write the lyrics and the music. But I also have my arranger, my musical producer, Hermani Almeida, who also acts as musical director for my band. We’ve been together for at least two years and he brings a lot. Now our music is more harmonious, more engaged, because we know each other well, and that’s reflected in our music.
In terms of the themes of your songs, do you draw primarily on experiences from your own life? Do you take inspiration from people around you or from society in general?
I talk about other people’s stories too. I have a song called “Forti D’Or,” which is about a mother who lost her son in a street fight—it happens a lot around here now, though it’s not happened to me or my family, I’ve seen that happen a lot. It’s a very painful issue and I wrote that song to raise awareness about it and to say that we can’t keep on losing young people in that way. So I talk about what I see and what inspires me, I write and I sing about it.
Throughout this week I’ve noticed that a lot of the artists who perform at the Atlantic Music Expo are very socially and politically conscious and reflect that in their work. Is that the norm?
Well, when we were on tour around Africa with RFI, it made me think that, yeah, life is good in Cape Verde. People can study—almost everyone goes to school, they can develop and grow. It gives people more consciousness of what happens here politically, economically—everything. I think that people are curious and they’re eager to learn. And today we have Internet, and we can learn everything through that, and we can read books and learn more about the history of our country. So we have everything that we need in order to be conscious and engaged citizens.
I have a last question on a side note—how did you learn to speak French so well?
No, my French isn’t that good! [Laughs] I would love to speak fluently one day, I always enjoyed speaking French in school and practicing with my teacher. And now I work with Lusafrica, a Paris-based label, so I need to be able to speak to them in French. I also travel a lot to do shows in France and I need to be able to communicate with the audience in French. I love the language.
Well, your French is excellent. Thank you, Elida!