Album Review: The Ano Nobo Quartet – ‘The Strings of Sao Domingos’: guitar driven rhythms and sumptuous songs from Cabo Verde’s soul.

The Breakdown

Vibrant, shimmering acoustic music, nodding to tradition but looking beyond...a sheer joy.
Ostinato Records 9.0

New York’s Ostinato Records mission to recover and re-examine the rich legacy of lost musical cultures is tireless. You may have already been knocked out by the label’s benchmark trio of retrospectives that charted the rippling currents of Cabo Verde’s music but now they are bringing our attention to more contemporary sounds from the community of West African islands. First up in this focus on the music of now comes a sizzling album from The Ano Nobo Quartet, ‘The Strings Of Sao Domingos’ (available from February 25th).

Lead by the charismatic Pascoal, who’s back story as a troubadour and soldier is a movie in waiting, the quartet of guitarists create vibrant, shimmering acoustic music drawn from their roots, nodding to tradition but with the combined imagination to look beyond their weighty history. Their namesake, the revered Cabo Verdean composer and songwriter Ano Nobo, was not only Pascoal’s musical mentor but also the father of the other three group members, Fany, Nono and Afrikanu. With such provenance it’s not surprising that the four have become masters of their instruments, although that’s not what completely distinguishes this head-turning group. The Ano Nobo Quartet’s essential dynamism comes from their seamlessly woven combined sound, blending their homegrown Koladera flavours with samba, salsa, flamenco, reggae and a twist acoustic blues.

From the moment the nimble guitar chops ring in the opener ‘Sociedad di Mocindadi’ you get the drift and pace of this very real sound, slightly worn, lived in vocals and softer yearning harmonies, riding over the most shoulder rolling rhythms. It’s spontaneous, lively and uplifting – intoxication from the get-go with plenty to keep up momentum throughout the whole album. Take the tumbling velocity of ‘Badia di Fora’, an energised double time samba that never misses a step despite a raw pleading vocal that strikes incisively through the rhythm. Or maybe the irrepressible ‘Tio Bernar’ where the Quartet’s layered rhythms reach a bewildering complexity, all wrist action and muted strums anchored by a steadfast bass-line. It may become a signature tune for the group, so catchy that they play ‘Tio Bernar’ twice, the alternative version that closes the record defiantly upping the tempo because they can, with an exuberance that recalls the early days of Rodrigo y Gabriela.

That’s not to say that ‘The Strings Of Sao Domingos’ is a soundtrack that gets stuck in a single dimension. The group’s instinctive arrangements and natural affinity with the songs means that they can conjure variety and balance without messing with their core components. ‘Canta Ku Alma Magoada’ sensitively eases off the chunky rhythms and brings a folksy marrabenta melody to the fore, Pascoal’s deep baritone coaxing a heartfelt lament from the assembled on lookers. Tugging at the emotions even more dramatically, the earthy serenade ‘Lolinha’ quivers with loss and raw regret, the simple guitar and exposed vocal touching Ibrahim Ferrer levels of authenticity.

The Quartet also warmly embrace the less conventional. Their take on ‘Mie Fogo’, last heard with electric funk undertones thanks to Dionisio Maio, revels in a very different cocktail of Koladero surges, intense flamenco patterns and detuned vocal. That may all sound improbable but The Ano Nobo Quartet somehow manage to concoct a tune with the spikiest of Tropicalia vibes. Similarly ‘Maria Cze Bu tem’ skanks to a bobbing cumbia-calypso stride then overlays steely American folkisms and the purist of blue note flourishes. It’s a tune that deceptively rolls through cycles before drifting away with the sounds of creaking seats, mumbling voices and a backyard cockerel.

Such found sounds, along with the brief interludes of lapping waves, laughter and street wise banter, weave through the album adding to its sense of place. You realise as the final waves crash on the run out groove that ‘The Strings Of Sao Domingos’ is so much more than a collection of exquisite songs, it has a story to tell. Recorded in remote non-studio set-ups around Santiago Island, the album is a document of unspoiled encounters and connections made through a commitment to a shared heritage. It’s the sound of sheer joy and listening to the record is a genuine privilege.

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