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Vocalist-composer Sara Serpa’s latest album, Intimate Strangers, which teams her with Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma, flows beautifully from its predecessor. In 2020, Serpa released Recognition: Music for a Silent Film, an emotional exploration of Portuguese oppression in Angola, where her parents grew up. But while African settings are also central to the new recording, the project is broader in scope — a striking song cycle filled with mysterious and poignant tales from across the continent.
The aptly titled “First Song” serves as a template for what follows. The track begins with distant conversations prior to the introduction of interwoven vocal lines — some wordless, others brimming with poetic expressions such as, “The only thing a man needs is a suitcase and a song.” At that point, Iduma enters via narration that explains how “humans had interjected themselves between reality and dream.” The effect is strange yet beguiling — an invitation to not only visit such places, but to become immersed in them.
This world feels so tangible in part because of the project’s foundation. The piece, commissioned by multi-hyphenate John Zorn, was supplemented during its 2018 Brooklyn premiere with Iduma’s words and photographs from A Stranger’s Pose, a travelogue in which he describes journeys to a dozen cities in countries such as Mali and Senegal. But even without images, the descriptions offered on tracks such as the vivid “Bamako” and “Kidira,” a chilling story that probes the nature of privilege, could not feel more tangible.
Musical accompanists such as pianist Matt Mitchell, modular synth player Qasim Naqvi, and vocalists Aubrey Johnson and Sofia Rei (a member of Mycale, Zorn’s a cappella group) deserve credit aplenty for this accomplishment. But the ultimate vision belongs to Serpa, who’s among the most singular talents working in music today.