Portuguese singer-songwriter Sara Tavares trades in understatement. She strokes rather than strums guitar chords, her two percussionists are more likely to brush a drum than whack it hard, and her soft close-to-the-mike voice specialises in gentle yearning rather than soul-girl histrionics. So the intimate space of the Jazz Café seems much better suited to her than, say, the Barbican where she had the unenviable task earlier this year of being a viable support act to the larger-than-life Malian diva, Oumou Sangare. As it turned out, Sara did a perfectly good job of warming up Oumou’s crowd, but she was definitely much more at home last night in front of an audience who were there only for her.
The set began with some ambient street sounds recorded by the singer in Lisbon, before drifting in to “Manso, Manso”, a track from her latest album Xinti
(which translates as “Feel It”). Although Sara’s percussionists each had a startling array of noise-making objects and instruments, I was intrigued by how little sound they made during the early stages of the gig. In fact when one of the percussionists brushed a cymbal, it looked like he was dusting off cobwebs rather than being intent on producing a sound. But this is Sara’s music, played how Sara wants it played, and it’s beautifully detailed music devoid of tension but nevertheless busy with ideas.
Sara herself looks transcendentally relaxed, dressed in a sleeveless grey top and faded jeans, her sun-browned locks piled high on her head, and the most natural of smiles permanently gracing her face. She couldn’t have looked more at home as she strummed her acoustic guitar and talked to the audience, in both Portuguese and English, between numbers. Gradually the tempo and intensity of the music picked up, and it suddenly became more obvious how many of her songs have a subtle Jamaican influence. Yes, the melancholy Cape Verdian style of Morna, made famous by Cesaria Evora, was in strong evidence, but it was frequently underpinned by a dub reggae bass line and a chugging guitar riff.
Sara Tavares first came to the attention of us Brits in 2006, with the release of her excellent third album, Balancê.
A live album, Alive! In Lisboa
(which included a DVD and a bonus CD of her previously hard-to-get-hold-of 1999 album Mi Ma Bo
) followed in 2008, and a new one, Xinti
, was released recently and was the source for most of her set last night, which was just fine by me as it’s undoubtedly her best work to date.
Tracks like the Congolese soukous-influenced “Sumanai”, with its high-on-the-fret-board chiming lead guitar riff, sprang to life in a live context, and “Porto De Luz” is the sweetest, prettiest ballad she has written to date. The band played it with consummate sensitivity, letting its gentle melody float round the venue, and its emotional pull, silence all the chatterers.
Then finally we got to the up-tempo, hand-clapping part of the evening, as the samba/reggae crossover tune “Balancê” got a tougher, rootsier work-over than the version on the album of the same name. I’ve always thought that “Balancê
” sounds like a close cousin of India Arie’s “Video
” but you decide. Both artists lean more towards singer-songwriter introspection than the soul/R&B aesthetic that their record companies must have hoped they would embrace.
Artists like Sara Tavares should be treasured because it’s so rare for them to get their music, in its purist most uncompromised form, out there for public consumption. Tavares may produce the gentlest music and have the sweetest of smiles, but she must have had to be one tough cookie to have made it this far completely on her own terms, as her music suggests that she has.