Manecas Costa: Grin and share it

Guitarist, singer-songwriter and goodwill ambassador for the UN, Manecas Costa is a man on a mission, hears Michael Church

Every so often, another blazing talent emerges from Central Africa: the CD debut of a guitarist with a perpetual grin called Manecas Costa heralds another such arrival. But acoustic finger-picking is only one component of his spell: he writes and arranges his songs, and sings them with the sort of sunlit charm that goes down especially well in the bush hospitals where his duties as a United Nations goodwill ambassador have often taken him.

Performing recently at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, he even managed to shine in spite of the malaria that had sent his temperature into the stratosphere, and to which, with characteristic professionalism, he did not even allude.

He hails from Guinea-Bissau, where, despite the fact that this impoverished land between Guinea and Senegal has no studio, his album Paraiso di Gumbe has been recorded under Lucy Duran's direction for the fledgling Late Junction label. And the story of his emergence is suitably down-home. "When I was eight," he says, "my father bought toy helicopters for me and my older brother, but we said, take them back to the shop, we want a guitar that we will share. And he did - a Spanish guitar. Nobody taught us, but we listened constantly to the radio, to the Beatles, to Bembeya Jazz, to Cuban music - from them we picked up our sound. I became obsessed with the guitar. I played it all the time." By the time he was 10, he was performing professionally with a group called Africa Libre, which he'd formed with like-minded local teenagers.

Africa Libre: this was in the first heady days of freedom from Portugal's colonial yoke, when there were no nightclubs and just one radio station. Costa well remembers the feasts to welcome the guerrilla fighters as they streamed in to take power, and the excitement of being able to sing in Kriolu, which the Portuguese had banned as the language of resistance that had united the country's diverse ethnic groups.

This is the language in which Paraiso di Gumbe is recorded, and the instruments Costa now uses are the village ones he grew up listening to - the slit drum, the long guitar, and, above all, the tina water-drum, which consists of a giant calabash beaten upside-down in a washtub, where the splash of water is an integral part of the sound. Some of the tracks have a bucolic sweetness, others a driving aggression, and in them, that word gumbe is the key: it's the name of a Creole rhythm that was proscribed 150 years ago by colonists who were frightened of its elemental power.

Manecas Costa gets hot under the collar when mention is made of the Cape Verdean beat that has taken over both in Lisbon - where he now lives - and in his homeland. He demonstrates by drumming on our café table, a dull and monotonous beat, which in clubs is produced on a synthesiser. "Formulaic!" he snorts. "And it has become the standard style in Guinea-Bissau - it's the only way musicians can make money. Yet our country has such a wealth of styles. Why does it have to let itself get swamped? There's no need." So, how does gumbe go? More drumming on the table, but this time full of ingenious cross-rhythms. Anyone would want to get up and dance.

How do his songs emerge? In answer, he tells the story of one of his new tracks: "I was on the train outside Lisbon, and a melody got into my head which I sang non-stop till I could get home and find the chords to harmonise it. The words came afterwards, as they always do. Its title - "Djunda Djunda" - means a tug of war, which is how I see Guinea Bissau's problems, tearing itself apart, never moving forwards. The title is a metaphor for a country which is always depleting its own resources."

Civil war drove him out, but he longs to go back, to continue his work in the countryside. "Teaching about hygiene and eating properly. Persuading mothers of the importance of keeping a health card showing their babies' medical history. First I give a lecture, then I turn it into songs. Music for me has always been about more than just entertaining."

'Paraiso di Gumbe' is out now on Late Junction

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