Interview: Sara Alhinho – An Harmony of Latin, African, and European Roots (April 2023)

In the heart of Praia, Cape Verde, where the rhythmic waves of the Atlantic Ocean meet the vibrant spirit of African culture, the ninth edition of the Atlantic Music Expo (AME) is in full swing. This annual event serves as a melting pot of musical talent from across the globe, celebrating diversity and the power of music to transcend borders. Among the featured artists is Sara Alhinho, a singer, guitarist, and composer whose music is a rhythmic testament to the fusion of cultural influences.

Sara Alhinho embodies a unique blend of identities. Born in Portugal and raised in Cape Verde since the age of five, Sara’s journey into music has been an exploration of her diverse heritage. Her father, Mexican by birth, brought a powerful cultural influence into her life, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the expressive Cape Verdean culture.

In an interview we had on the eve of her showcase, Sara shared her thoughts on this interplay of influences and her musical evolution.

“For me, creating music with those influences is very natural”, Sara begins. “I grew up with Cape Verdean music, and my main identity is Cape Verdean because I’ve been here since I was five years old. But my father is Mexican, so I also have a strong connection to Mexican culture. Some cultures are expressive but lack as much strength, but Mexican culture has a lot of force, food to various symbolic elements. Just thinking about the symbolism embedded in Mexican culture, well, there are many aspects to it. So, it’s a very substantial culture, and I absorbed many of those elements”.

Sara’s talent for blending diverse cultural influences into her music is a clear testament to her artistry, creating a captivating sound that appeals to music enthusiasts far and wide.

As the conversation turns to her connection with Portugal, Sara reveals, “Portuguese culture, while somewhat less expressive than Mexican culture, holds a significant place in my life. I was born in Portugal but have only lived there for the past 6 years. The experience of living in Portugal was unique for me because, even in Cape Verde, we feel the influence of Portuguese culture due to our proximity and historical connections. However, it was when I actually moved to Portugal that I truly discovered it through my own perspective. Although I was born there, I came to Cape Verde at a very young age. It was an unusual experience because I had previously visited Portugal on vacations, and, as you might know, there’s always a certain level of skepticism because Cape Verde was once a Portuguese colony. This resistance to Portuguese influence persists here. There’s always a rejection that is instilled in us; it’s cultural. And when you arrive there, you go with a bit of skepticism, so being open to seeing the beautiful things it has was a great learning experience. It was something very surprising because I discovered Portugal from a different perspective that I didn’t have before”.

Sara’s musical journey is intricately tied to the musical connections between Portugal and Cape Verde. She eloquently expresses, “In terms of a musical perspective, there isn’t much difference because the Portuguese have very strong music with melancholy, which is very present in their music, just like Cape Verde. We share a lot of melancholy, but they also have joy in their music because it’s not just fado; they have a lot of joy too. They are a people of many mixtures, like Cape Verdeans. There have been influences from all over, so there are more commonalities than we might think. They also have an ancestry, an ancient wisdom from an old country that is very curious and is also transmitted through their music”.

Sara keenly observes that Portugal has become a hub for musical fusion in recent years, a phenomenon she passionately recognises. She states, “I believe Portugal is currently experiencing a very exciting period in its music scene. Portugal has always been a place of mixing, the blend. It’s commonly said that Cape Verdean culture emerged from the fusion with the Portuguese. The one responsible for this cultural mixing is the Portuguese because if you think about the past, they were the ones who blended the most. This blending is evident in music as well. Nowadays, in Portugal, when you go there, there’s a fusion, a phenomenon happening. They embrace other cultures, and they mix, and this is happening more than ever. So, it’s very beautiful to see that”.

Drawing a comparison between Lisbon and Praia, Sara notes a marked contrast. She ardently expresses her wish that Cape Verde could mirror Portugal’s musical vibrancy while also lamenting the changing musical landscape in Cape Verde, “In Cape Verde, it’s increasingly challenging to find places where people gather to dance purely for the joy of it. If I were to search for a spot to relish music and dance freely, I’d find none in Cape Verde. In Portugal, establishments like B.Leza provide traditional venues where people dance not for conquest or flirtation, but for the sheer delight of moving to the music. This, in itself, is a significant indicator of the musical climate…”

Sara believes Cape Verde’s shifting focus towards economic pursuits has contributed to this transformation, “Cape Verde has increasingly directed its attention toward economic endeavours. It’s no longer solely about the stunning beaches; it has transitioned into a destination with an economic agenda… For instance, this happens here in Praia. While, São Vicente on the other hand still maintains a stronger connection to its traditional roots and faces fewer economic disparities. It has preserved its essence as an island influenced by various cultures, just like Cape Verde as a whole. In the global context, people are like Cape Verdeans; it’s not just a transient place. I mean, people have been passing through here since time immemorial, right? So, much has happened here, and there has been a rich tapestry of cultural mixing”.

Reflecting on Portugal’s journey, Sara acknowledges the influx of people, especially artists, drawn to the country’s burgeoning popularity and the undeniable impact on its music scene.

When it comes to the audience, Sara finds distinctions between Cape Verdean and Portuguese listeners. She explains, “The Cape Verdean public is inherently musical and open to embracing a wide array of music. In contrast, the Portuguese audience tends to be a bit more conservative. However, we were fortunate because Cape Verdean music is currently in vogue in Portugal, which has fostered greater acceptance. It’s a favourable period for Cape Verdeans and their music”.

Sara firmly believes in the universal appeal of Cape Verdean music, emphasising its diversity and its ability to resonate with people worldwide, “I firmly believe that Cape Verdean music possesses a universal appeal because it encompasses diversity. Cape Verdeans are a global community, marked by a rich blend of influences. This diversity in our music resonates with people because it feels familiar and universal. People connect with the music’s essence first and foremost, before delving into the lyrics. It’s all about the musicality, and Cape Verde boasts a particularly powerful musicality that resonates deeply”.

Sara’s influences span the globe, and her music reflects this rich tapestry, “While I draw inspiration from Latin American music, it’s interesting to note that some of my songs exhibit melodic lines reminiscent of Celtic music, despite having no direct Celtic connections. Interestingly, a recent genetic test revealed a trace of Celtic ancestry, shedding light on this intriguing musical convergence…”

Sara speaks of Cape Verdeans’ openness to musical diversity and their rich exposure to various genres, “In Cape Verde, our musical tastes are remarkably diverse, influenced by the world at large. Families abroad often sent us CDs, and friends returning from the United States would bring back albums, exposing us to a wide range of genres. Cape Verdeans are known for their adventurous spirit in music, taking inspiration and making it uniquely their own. We embrace a multitude of musical influences, from jazz and blues to classical compositions, resulting in a rich and eclectic soundscape that reflects our vibrant culture”.

She also highlights the influence of African heritage on Portugal, particularly in the southern regions, “In particular, the Southern part of Portugal has experienced significant cultural blending, partly due to its historical ties with Africa. There is a substantial African heritage in Portugal. When you venture to the southern regions of Portugal, it’s akin to experiencing Africa – it’s a different world with distinct music, dance, and overall ambiance. The southern part of Portugal, which is also exceptionally beautiful, offers this unique cultural experience”.

Sara’s pride in Cape Verdean music is evident when discussing its global appeal. She passionately states, “Cape Verdean music is known for its diversity and global appeal. It’s a family-oriented music that resonates with people worldwide. It’s universal and melodic, and people connect with the music itself rather than just the lyrics. Cape Verdean music is open to various influences from around the world, making it a rich and unique musical landscape”.

Sara’s creative journey is fully embodies by her latest project, an EP dedicated to her parents. She reveals, “My lyrics tend to carry a somewhat interventionist tone, especially in my second album. However, this new EP focuses more on my family and explores the theme of love, employing numerous metaphors. Cape Verdean music is renowned for its metaphorical style, possibly because in the past, many things were communicated indirectly, lending a poetic quality to the Creole language. She adds, ” I initially penned the lyrics here in Cape Verde, but I collaborated with Ricardo Quintero, a Portuguese-Angolan, for the recording. We produced it in Portugal and promoted it extensively throughout the country. It became an essential part of our journey.

As anticipated, her new EP is a heartfelt tribute to her parents, with a song dedicated to her Mexican father and metaphoric tracks celebrating Portugal, Mexico, and Cape Verde. “The first track I released from this EP is titled ‘Magical Garden’, depicting Portugal as a beautiful garden, with Lisbon, in particular, captivating people with its beauty and radiant light. Then, the second track delves into the theme of my mother, giving it special significance. After Portugal and Mexico, which symbolise my family, we arrive at Cape Verde, which is akin to a mother to me. The EP’s final track sums up all of this and discusses me, the result of these familial relationships”.

As she looks ahead to the future, Sara brims with artistic aspirations, “I have many future projects in mind. I think this marks the end of a cycle, and after this, I plan to do something entirely different. Following the release of this EP, my idea is to explore new horizons. I have feelings, but not trajectories. You see, when it comes to my creativity, I consider myself very creative. I enjoy singing, but what truly excites me is creating. I can spend hours locked in a room, creating. Since I didn’t formally study music and never went to school for it, I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. When you don’t know the notes and don’t fully understand what you’re doing, you have tremendous freedom because the world becomes an infinite field of possibilities. That’s why I enjoy this process so much. Although at some point, I could improve my performance if I studied, I’m afraid of losing that ability to explore without limits“.

As the interview draws to a close, Sara offers a list of artists who inspired her, a glimpse into her eclectic taste. “There are several artists I admire“, she says. “As for recommendations within Cape Verdean music, I’m somewhat selective. I’m not a critic, but the music needs to resonate deeply with me. Actually, it’s not just about the music itself; it’s also about the person behind it. The person must align with the message in their music. You have to sing what you believe in and what you feel.

“By the way, from Cape Verde, I really like Tcheka, who will be part of Kriol Jazz Festival. I also appreciate Neuza, a singer from Fogo island with a beautiful voice and a unique way of representing her island’s people. I really admire an artist named Khyra Tavares, who happens to be Neuza’s aunt. She’s quite an exceptional artist, in my opinion. Within the music scene of Cape Verde, she’s like a rockstar and brings something entirely different to the table. You know those artists who are a rare breed, like Tom Waits, whose era has passed, and today’s music industry doesn’t produce such personalities anymore? Well, she has that essence, as if she was plucked from that bygone era, and we have her right here in Cape Verde. I really like her.

“While, in Lisbon, I’m quite fond of Carolina Deslandes. I feel that she creates music with a strong message. Nowadays, people are often afraid to voice their opinions because they might be misunderstood. So, being brave and having a voice of your own is something I truly admire, and she possesses a powerful voice. I often wish I could be more like her. I’m someone with strong convictions and a political inclination, but at times, I lack the courage to speak my mind openly”.

Sara Alhinho’s evolving musical journey continues to resonate with echoes of diverse cultures and an unbridled spirit. She concludes by reflecting, “It’s quite challenging to pinpoint a specific label for my music. I believe it carries a celestial touch – it’s celestial music. It exudes a sense of expansion and something more. I often say that Mexico bestowed spirituality upon me. In a way, I was ‘shaped’ in Mexico. There are theories suggesting that a person’s spirit incarnates at around three months. So, my mother was pregnant with me while in Mexico, and I feel an incredibly strong connection to that place. It’s almost as if my belly button… is Mexico City. I also lived there for two years.

I believe that what I want to do in the near future is explore other forms of expression, step out of my comfort zone, see more, experiment more, and be bolder. Even though I’ve been somewhat conservative within my style, now I want to keep pushing boundaries and experimenting with new ideas to evolve as an artist. I consider myself a creative person who enjoys the process of creating music. As I’ve said, I didn’t follow a traditional musical education, which allows me to approach music with a sense of freedom and explore limitless possibilities“.


Photo ©: Cristiano Barbosa

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