Only a few years ago, the Portuguese singer Lura was providing backing vocals for Cesaria Evora, the veteran barefoot songstress from Cape Verde. Now, Lura's solo career is established, with her third album released earlier this year and an exuberant debut at Womad still fresh in the memories of that festival's partying global music enthusiasts.
Lura's parents came from Cape Verde, but they were already living in Lisbon by the time of independence. The Cape Verde archipelago lies off the coast of Senegal, and won its independence from Portugal in 1975, the year Lura was born. Her full name is Maria de Lurdes Assuncao Pina, so using a shortened form is an understandable career move. In recent years, the singer has been seeking her roots, making repeated visits to the islands and letting Cape Verdean music seep into her soul.
I caught up with Lura in Paris, where she was playing as support to the Spanish actress Victoria Abril, who has lately been reborn as a bossa nova interpreter. The gig was at Olympia, the city's most renowned venue for pop performers. It was an important showcase for Lura's talents, in front of an audience that was drawn from an orbit beyond that of her accustomed world music crowd. She pulled the audience closer with her bold delivery, voice deep and strong, with a resonant, full-lunged projection.
Lura's band has a conventional line-up of drums, bass, guitar and keyboards, but they help her realise a set of songs that, while rooted in the traditional sound of Cape Verde, also look farther across the Atlantic to Brazil and Cuba, besides utilising certain elements of a more mainstream North American pop sensibility. The breezy, romantic air of Cesaria Evora is still present, but Lura's music has a pushier edge.
We meet in the offices of her French record company, Lusafrica, which specialises in artists from the Portuguese-speaking parts of the continent, most notably Cesaria Evora herself. The interpreter is dispensed with, as Lura's English is fine, and she's eager to tell her story directly.
She sings in Kriolu, which mixes Portuguese with elements of African tongues, mostly from Senegal and Guinea. The words of her songs are evocative of life in Cape Verde. Lura's mission is to reflect the past life of her parents and the current existence of her extended family.
"Every immigrant dreams of returning to Cape Verde," she says. "My parents live in Lisbon since they were 15 years old, and now they are near 50 years old, and they dream to return. To die," she laughs heartily. "I go often to Cape Verde. It's very important to me."
Given that two-thirds of the potential Cape Verde population is scattered around the globe, it's not surprising that a poetic sense of yearning and nostalgia pervades its dominant morna song-style.
Lura started singing at 17. "I listened to everything. Well, metallic is a little strong for me. There is one Cape Verdean heavy metal band, though. When I was 12, I was listening in my home to Portuguese and American music, but my parents listened to Cape Verdean music, and I assimilated this when I was a child. When I was a teenager, I started to pay attention."
Such sounds are easily heard in Lisbon, due to the city's large Cape Verdean community. Lura's first recording was a duet with the zouk singer Juka, then she went on to perform with Angola's Bonga. "The first album was like a dare: I will show everyone in my school that I am a singer," she laughs. "My first experience in music was that duet, and after recording my album, I went back to the basics, to the background vocals. I never dreamed to be a singer."
Lura's first album, Nha Vida (My Life), was released in 1996, when she was barely out of her teens. It was squarely aimed at the commercial discotheque. "It was a success in Cape Verde, and that would become a big responsibility. Everybody asked me for the next album. Step by step, it became clear for me: okay, I'm a singer! I knew other singers, other musicians. I had invitations, I participated in all of the African recording sessions in Lisbon. To become a singer became something serious for me. I had a course in sports, and I left that to sing. In the beginning I was confused: singing or swimming?"
Even so, there was to be a fallow period before Lura signed to Lusafrica in 2002, and soon released In Love, her second album. Lura's third disc, Di Korpu Ku Alma (Of Body and Soul) came out earlier this year, licensed to the Escondida label in the UK.
Lura's songwriting has developed, in partnership with her pianist, Fernando Andrade, with the two contributing four songs to the latest album. Orlando Pantera wrote five of Di Korpu Ku Alma's songs, including the extremely catchy "Na Ri Na" and "Vazulina". Lura hadn't met Pantera before his untimely death in 2001, but she wanted to keep his songs alive, as he never released an album.
Lura has been soaking up Cape Verde's batuku music, from the main Santiago island. It's essentially a female folk form, performed by a large group who rotate improvised lines of a topical nature, like an organised gossiping session. They'll play the tchabeta, a bundle of cloth, clamped between the knees. Lura uses the modern incarnation of this makeshift percussion instrument, her version looking like a shiny cushion.
Di Korpu Ku Alma has been marked by a strong feeling for Cape Verde's traditional music. I ask Lura what her first impressions were, on visiting the birthplace of her parents. "Very poor. Very dry. Everybody says to me that Cape Verde is beautiful, but the first time, these were my impressions, because I made a comparison with something I dreamed. I stayed there for two months, and after I talk with the people, I discovered a lot of things, the places, my people, my family. In Portugal, I have just my parents and my brothers."
Most of Lura's extended family is still on the islands. "My music went to Cape Verde after me, and it was well received. Now I speak more, in my music, about the Cape Verdean people, but not in the beginning. It's a very big identification, now, because I'm talking about them."
'Di Korpu Ku Alma' is out now on Escondida. To vote in the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards, from Sunday go to www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/worldmusic/a4wm2006/Reuse content