In her New York debut last night at Merkin Concert Hall, Cape Verde singer Lucibela delivered a mix of pensive morna ballads and bouncy coladera dance tunes with considerably more depth and gravitas than her limited if stylistically vast recorded repertoire has hinted at so far A sold-out crowd who’d followed those hints, or had seen her before – the home island posse was in full effect for this show – sang and danced along to a dynamically shifting mix of Portuguese-language songs reflecting issues of distance and alienation, and sometimes just good times off the west coast of Africa.
The World Music Institute’s Gaby Sappington – who’d booked this show – explained that she’d chosen Lucibela to open their 2019-20 season and keep the spirit of late-summer vacationing alive, if only for an evening. Yet the most explosively applauded number of the night was a brooding, bolero-tinged ballad where the bandleader finally reached for the rafters with her cool alto voice, channeling abandonment and destitution.
It took her awhile to get to that point. Rocking a mane of an afro and dressed in a simple white-and-beige linen dress and sandals, she sang with an elegant understatement for most of the evening. Her four-piece backing band were tight and methodical. Seven-string acoustic guitarist Ze Antonio alternated between graceful, steady chords, swinging basslines on his low strings, and the night’s most shivery, breathtaking instrumental break. Purposeful, incisive lead guitarist Daya Nieves switched to melodica on a handful of songs, alongside carvaquinho (Brazilian ukulele) player Stephane and drummer Nir, who balanced graceful rimshots and a mist of cymbals over a groove that often slunk into clave.
Lucibela began the night very demurely but as the trajectory of the songs rose from stately morna ballads to more kinetic, often bossa-tinged coladera numbers, she warmed to the audience and by the end of the show had them on their feet and dancing. The night’s funniest song was Profilaxia, a sardonically romping tune about a guy who just can’t get enough of the females. That was her moment to flirt with the dudes in the front row. Meanwhile, the guitars intertwined, the carvaquinho plinked, and influences from across the waves – from dramatic flamenco to stark Romany music to Portuguese fado and French cabaret – filtered through the mix.
The World Music Institute‘s ongoing series of concerts continues this Sept 22 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall once again with Indian sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee and tabla player Ojas Adhiya; you can get in for $25.