Nancy Vieira was born in 1975 in Bissau, where her parents had joined the leader of the struggle for independence in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, Amilcar Cabral. Cabral was assassinated in 1973, just before Portugal’s colonial period ended with the Carnation Revolution in April 1974. Cape Verde gained independence in 1975. Four months after Nancy’s birth, the Vieira family moved to Praia, Cape Verde’s new capital on Santiago, one of the archipelago’s ten islands. Born to this newly-won liberty, she would acquire a strong sense of identity on her political and artistic journey. Her father, an amateur musician, guitarist and violinist, became Minister of Transport and Communication in the new government. Ten years later, he returned to Mindelo, the busy, metropolitan port on the island of São Vicente, where he acted as the governor of the Barlavento Islands (the “windward”, northern islands).
When Nancy was fourteen, her father was appointed Cape-Verdean ambassador to Portugal, “which took in the French representation, so he went to present his letters of credence to President François Mitterrand,” explains the young woman, who has lived in Lisbon ever since. Nancy studied management and sociology at the University of Lisbon. One evening, she accompanied a friend to a song contest he had entered. Heard humming along, she was asked to sing and performed B. Leza’s Lua Nha Testemunha for the judges. She won. The prize was the chance to record an album for the now defunct Disco Norte label. The record was called Nos Raça (1996). Taking the time she needed to have a daughter and look after her, Nancy only released her second album, Segred, eight years later in 2004, then Lus came out in 2007. In 2011, Nancy worked with pianist and artistic director Nando Andrade and released No Amá, the album that revealed her to an international audience. The record won over music lovers orphaned by Cesaria Evora, from Poland to Greece, the Baltic States to Italy, and the Netherlands to Russia.
In the days of Portuguese colonial rule, São Vicente secondary school was an intellectual melting pot attended by the poet, morna writer and brilliant politician Amilcar Cabral. Nancy Vieira studied there too, absorbing the background sounds of the port of Mindelo: the Brazilians, Maria Bethania, Caetano Veloso and Angela Maria, fado, mornas, coladeras, British pop, Cuban rumba and so on.
Mindelo was the scene of this musical fusion and home to Cesaria Evora (1941-2011). Herculano Vieira, Nancy’s father, had been a captain in the merchant navy and had played with Cesaria in his youth, “before the struggle,” says Nancy. “I found that out in June 2011 when I was recording my album in Mindelo. It was the first time I’d been to see Cesaria at her home and she asked me, ‘How is Herculano?’ I found that moving. He’d never said a word about it.”
Nancy is not precisely akin to Cesaria Evora, although their repertoires and musical associations definitely coincide. Their styles are different, though. Nancy Vieira’s voice is direct and clear compared to the sultry heat of the “Barefoot Diva”. The two have little in common in terms of personality, social background and life story. Yet what connects them is the secret affinity of Cape Verdeans for their music, which straddles the West and Africa: a music of ocean crossings and Creole culture.