A Brief Venture in Music of Guinea-Bissau

Today we’re going to take a brief digression from music in Ethiopia to music of Guinea-Bissau, all the way on the other side of the continent in West Africa. Why the sudden geographic shift, you may ask? Last year, I actually met several Bissau-Guineans who were living in Addis Ababa to pursue opportunities in higher education. One of them, Daniel Soares Tavares, is an especially talented musician, and has a lot to tell about the music of his homeland and his own creative pursuits.

Before we get into more about Daniel and his music, let’s first learn a bit about Guinea-Bissau. It’s a small nation in West Africa, nestled between Senegal and Guinea, with an extensive coastline and an impressive collection of small islands.

Guinea-Bissau, West Africa

Before the Portuguese established a trading center in region in the 1400s, the area of what is now Guinea-Bissau was part of the Malian Empire. Portugal later colonized Guinea-Bissau in the nineteenth century, and Guinea-Bissau won its independence in 1974 after an 11-year war. Now, much of the population still speaks Portuguese, although kilion, a creole language that mixes Portuguese and local languages, is more common. Guinea-Bissau’s residents also speak their local indigenous languages, so, if you are keeping count, that means it is common in Guinea-Bissau to speak a minimum of three languages (and many speak even more). Most of the population follows either Islam, Christianity, indigenous beliefs, or some syncretic combination of the three.

As for Daniel, his background is in the Christian church, and many of the songs he shared with us reflect this. He moved to Ethiopia four years ago to study theology at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, and he is just now graduating with his degree and ready to return to his home country. He started writing his own songs about eight years ago, although he was at first resistant to the idea of becoming a musician. “Actually,” he said, “this guy discovered my gift when we had a youth campus. We were in the same group, and I was with them practicing the songs that we were going to present in the youth campus. So, this guy, he was telling me that, ‘You have a nice voice, why don’t you join choir, why don’t you sing with us?’ I said, ’No, I don’t like to sing.’ And then he was encouraging me, and, every group that we had, he called me. And, from there, I start to feel love [for] music.”

Daniel’s musical knowledge and output are prolific, but let’s start with one of the latest songs he recorded in the studio, called “Unity,” which is calling citizens of Guinea-Bissau to unite with one another and work together for the future of their nation.

While I was in Addis last year, I had also asked if he could sing a few songs for this post that are generally well-known amongst Bissau-Guineans and that would be pedagogically accessible for any of you ensemble leaders out there looking for new music to teach your group. The first two songs he sang have simple lyrics and so are ideal for teaching in schools, world music ensembles, or churches. If you teach these, of course, make sure you also educate your students or choir members about the culture and history of Guinea-Bissau, where these songs originated.

This first song is in the lento style. Dani believes it has most likely been excerpted and adapted from a hymn, so there is no particular author. This song is well-known and is especially used in “adoration time” (for worship and prayer), since the lento style, “Helps you to pray more,” in Dani’s words. The portions that Dani sings between the “Iyaboso Jesus,” are typically improvised by the song leader.

“Eyaweh sta ku nos” is in the gumbe style and is sung in the kilion. Dani grew up hearing this song, and he believes it has also been taken from a hymn, as reworking songs from hymns is common practice. This song is especially popular amongst the older generation, although young people also enjoy it. According to Dani, the energetic gumbe style encourages people to dance, which, in turn, gives him more power to sing when he is leading church services.

The lento, gumbe, tina, and zuk music styles are widely known and performed by all Guinea-Bissau’s people groups, but each ethnic group also has its own style, such as balak, jembedone, and so forth. Gumbe is the national style, and Dani used to sing this style with Guinea-Bissau’s national band. Although he sings mainly in the church, the musical characteristics of church music and secular music are virtually the same. This is true for both local and international genres (e.g. rap can be used in church music as long as the lyrics are religious in nature).

This next song is another one of Daniel’s originals, which he recorded at a studio in Guinea-Bissau. It is in the zuk style, a style also found in Cape Verde and Angola. The lyrics are in Portuguese, and the title of the song, “Dificians,” means, “Disabled.” In Guinea-Bissau, those with disabilities are often stigmatized or discriminated against, and people may avoid interacting with them. These lyrics say that those who are crippled, blind, and deaf were born that way: they received their sickness from God, so we should love and respect them.

Daniel has a lot more original songs and has spent a lot of his time in the studio in the past few years. We’ll be looking forward to hearing more from him in the future as he continues to compose and release new music!

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