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Portuguese vocalist Sara Serpa’s stunning new album, Recognition: Music for a Silent Film (Biophilia Records), was sparked by an invitation. “John Zorn asked me if I wanted to do something combining music and film at the Drawing Center,” Serpa says of the idiosyncratic saxophonist and composer, who was curating a program at the New York City venue back in 2017. “And I thought it was a good opportunity to explore things that had been in the back of my mind for quite a while.”
The topic to which she turned was Portugal’s colonial past as it applied to Angola, where her parents were raised in a society that systematically oppressed the native population.
The Angolan roots of Serpa’s family run deep. “They go back to the beginning of the 20th century,” she points out. “My great grandfather settled there in 1910, and my grandfather was born there in 1914. But from conversations with my mother, she knew as a child she didn’t want to stay there. There were a lot of inequities, of course — things children don’t understand, but they could feel that something was not right.”
Her parents moved to Portugal to attend university, and they subsequently rallied on behalf of colonial independence and took part in protests against the fascist regime, which fell in 1975, four years prior to Serpa’s birth. As she grew, she discovered this dark chapter in the country’s past, but not via institutional sources. “History was kind of whitewashed the way I learned it in school,” she recalls. “There was hardly any mention of the slave trade and the colonial period and what really happened there.”
Fortunately, Serpa found out while researching the Drawing Center project that she had access to original material about Angola — not just family photo albums, but also silent Super 8 footage shot by her grandfather that even her mother had never seen. “They were a huge revelation, a door to a reality,” she notes. “They weren’t family-focused films. He filmed everything around him, outside his house. It was really a window onto that period.”
With the aid of director Bruno Soares, Serpa created the film version of Recognition, in which these images are juxtaposed with text by Amílcar Cabral, an anti-colonial leader and poet. For the score, meanwhile, she collaborated with three gifted accompanists: harpist Zeena Parkins, pianist David Virelles and saxophonist Mark Turner. On moving and dynamic tracks such as “Free Labour,” Serpa employs her trademark wordless vocals to plumb emotional truths. But she uses a Cabral speech to devastating effect on “Unity and Struggle” and couples a disturbing narrative with gentle sonics throughout “Beautiful Garden.”
“I wanted the music to have reflective characteristics, to provide a place where the listener is in a relaxed state — not being confronted or feeling attacked,” she explains. “The music might sound peaceful or nice, but the subject is very dark and heavy. It is a reality that has been hidden from a certain population for a long time.” —Michael Roberts
Featured photo by Heather Sten.