Mayra Andrade: The new diva of Cape Verde

Mayra Andrade has been nominated as best newcomer in the Radio 3 World Music Awards. Tim Cumming meets a rising star
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She's barely into her twenties, and yet Mayra Andrade has already made a big impact internationally. Her first London concert, supporting Angelique Kidjo at the Barbican earlier this autumn, had critics lining up to predict a headlining slot for the young Cape Verdean singer when she returns in the new year. And she has now been nominated as best newcomer in the Radio 3 World Music Awards.

Listen to her debut album, Navega, and it's easy to see why. Opening with the ebullient, declamatory "Dimokransa" (written by one of Cape Verde's leading Creole poets and politicians) and ending with a languorous morna by the late, lamented young composer Orlando Pantera, Navega shimmers with Cape Verdean rhythms and lyrical themes – from the perils of the sea on the self-penned title song, via love's travails on Pantera's joyously bittersweet "Lapidu Na Bo", to the protective power of the sibitchi, the black necklace Andrade cradles in her hands on the album's back cover.

Cape Verde lies 500km west of Senegal and was uninhabited until the Portuguese settled there in the 16th century. Today, the islands are independent, but still far from the beaten track. Yet this tiny nation has a big voice, and since Cesaria Evora shuffled, bare-footed, on to the world stage, music has become Cape Verde's biggest export.

"Oh, everyone knows Cesaria," laughs Andrade as we talk in a quiet Parisian café. "She is very important for our country. Before Cesaria, no one knew about Cape Verde. It had a very strong culture, but it was like it didn't exist."

Evora has brought the morna – the islands' indigenous blues – to the world, but inevitably cast a long shadow, and it's only now that singers have emerged to stand alongside her. "Many people stopped with Cesaria. But now there's a new generation that's making music with their own personality. There is a new sound. It's not just music from a country, but from an artist, and they're being recognised for this."

Like many of her compatriots – including fellow singers Sarah Tavares and Lura, both of whom have been making waves over the last couple of years – Andrade has spent a good chunk of her life away from her country. She was born in Cuba – an ally in Cape Verde's war of independence. When she was six, her mother and stepfather moved to Senegal, then Angola, and later Germany, before returning to Cape Verde when she was 15, by then primed with an international schooling in music, and set on becoming a singer.

"It wasn't interesting for me to sing the way everyone else did. I'd lived in different countries with different music and rhythms, smells and colours, and all that influenced the way I imagined the music I wanted to make. And I really wanted to do something for the music of my country. When I came back I started making little shows and asking people if I could sing at their place. And that's where I met Pantera."

A cult figure and influential composer and performer on Cape Verde's music scene, Pantera died aged 33, just as his new-wave take on batuque, the African rhythm native to the farmlands of Santiago, the biggest island, was taking hold in the clubs and live music venues of Praia, the capital.

Fused with his strong sense of melody and the rich, often witty Creole of his lyrics, Pantera's songbook spoke directly to a new generation of Cape Verdean artists. "I'd heard about him," says Andrade, "and then I saw him sing. My aunt knew him and gave me his number. I was very young – I was 15, he was 31 – but I called up and said that I wanted to talk to him about the music he did."

They met up at a French cultural centre in Praia, she sang to him, and they soon started hanging out together, with Andrade performing with him at local gigs, and Pantera spreading the word about her. "I feel very lucky – many artists didn't have the chance to meet him and know him and see him singing his own compositions... When you see someone who is so free in his mind making music, you say, OK, that's what I want to do."

Among the Pantera compositions she chose for the album is the closing " Regasu", a morna he'd written 10 years before he died. "He was just about to get known in Santiago. He died the day he was meant to take a plane to record his first album in Europe. He'd written 'Regasu' for his funeral, and that was the first time I heard it."

Since 2003, Andrade has based herself in Paris. The first sessions for Navega came in 2005, with the great Cameroonian bassist Etienne Mbappé, Brazilian percussionist Ze Luis Nascimento, Madagascan accordion player Regis Gizavo, and Cape Verdean guitarist Kim Alves – a line-up that mixes African and Brazilian colours with Cape Verdean rhythms.

Given the African and Portuguese heritage that Cape Verde shares with Brazil, the affinity between the two musical cultures is strong, but Andrade is keen to stress the differences. "There are many things that are close on the record, but they are Cape Verdean, not Brazilian," she insists. I wanted the musicians to forget the Brazilian side and start from zero, to learn the Cape Verdean feeling."

Her music's affinities with Africa seem opaque, despite the continent's closer geographical proximity. However, Africa's influence in the music and culture of Cape Verde – from the batuque rhythms revived by Pantera to the animist roots of the sibitchi necklace – is another pivot upon which the island music of Navega swings.

"It's very important to me and young people like me," she says of Cape Verde's African inheritance. "In our parents' generation independence wasn't wanted by everyone. But I feel African and people my age are proud of their Africanness. These ideas are really changing in my generation."

'Navega' is out now on Sterns