Tremor, a recent festival of avant-garde music, showed how a local creative community is thriving on the Azores Islands
Before someone can introduce you to the splendor that is the Azores, they have to answer one big burning question that almost everybody has outside of the Iberian peninsula: What exactly is the Azores and where in the world is it? The Azores is a chain of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, almost a thousand miles west of its mother country on the mainland Portugal. Though it has been historically isolated, in the last five years or so, airlines have begun to offer inexpensive flights. Just last month, there was, of all things, a festival of avant-garde music called Tremor, which featured Mykki Blanco, Aïsha Devi, and Sheer Mag, on the biggest island of São Miguel, a mostly unthinkable proposition even a decade ago, when it could cost 400 euros or more just to get there from Lisbon. Which is to say: If you didn’t know much about the Azores before, expect to become familiar.
The five-year-old festival is an ideal introduction to the island, not just because it incorporates the landscape and topography of São Miguel into its program (there are concerts by waterfalls and bands to be heard while swimming through one of the island’s many natural geothermal hot springs) but because music is central to the identity of the Azores. I was invited and sponsored by the VisitAzores tourism board to attend Tremor, flown by the local Azores Airlines to Ponta Delgada, and put up at the chic beachside NEAT Hotel, and I discovered that while the music scene is small, it is strong, refined and inspired by life in such a secluded, special place.
THE VIOLA DA TERRA: AN ANCIENT INSTRUMENT NATIVE TO THE ISLANDS, BRIDGES THE PAST AND THE PRESENT
The pros and cons of isolation define much of Azorean music. Take for instance its most famous local instrument, the viola da terra. Its very design is a nod to Azorean life in the middle of the Atlantic: the dual sound holes carved into the base of the wood are in the shape of two hearts, one to symbolize the heart taken with you when you’ve left the island (employment has been historically limited and many Azoreans have had to leave in search of jobs in Brazil, America, and Canada) and one for the heart you’ve left behind. Rafael Carvalho, the Azores’ most prominent player of the viola da terra, tells me that immigration and emigration is at the core of the instrument’s resonance. The instrument is often used to play a saudade, a song of longing for a place or people left behind. “Azorean music is about nostalgia. People felt isolated on these islands, so the songs are about missing home or missing someone who has gone,” he says. “It’s sad music. It’s like your heart pumping. People will cry if you play a saudade – no one has shame. When I’m playing, sometimes I have one or two tears. We live in this mist.”
Carvalho learned the instrument in the folk manner at around 13 years old, from his father who used to play traditional Azorean songs around Christmas. When Carvalho was a kid, the instrument was already less prevalent on the islands than it had ever been, played sparingly for special religious festivals and with friends and family. By the 1980s, a difficult economic time in the Azores, a wave of people left the islands and there remained only one person still crafting the instrument. “The instrument almost disappeared,” he says. He has dedicated himself to a viola da terra revival, teaching the instrument at a local conservatory, notating old folk songs so they can be preserved and learned, and even composing new work for it, making albums that are a mix of classic and original compositions. “It’s part of our history. It’s the instrument that has been with us in the bad and good times,” he says. “We can not let it disappear.”
A BAND APART: A ROCK BAND FROM THE AZORES STRUGGLES TO KEEP IT TOGETHER ACROSS AN OCEAN
There are still difficulties in being a full-time musician in the Azores; for one, there is still a perception (and perhaps reality) that one has to leave the islands to make a better life. We Sea is a band – inspired by Connan Mockasin and Mac DeMarco – made up of Azoreans separated by the Atlantic Ocean, as some members remain on São Miguel and others have moved to mainland Portugal for education. “(Leaving) is still a statement of growing up,” says Clemente Almeida, a We Sea member who now lives on the continent to purse his medical degree. “I’m in my youth – I have the energy to get to know the world, but eventually I want to be here.” The themes of the songs are often directly inspired by the Azores, including words about their grandfathers and ones which call upon the superstitions of the island, referencing what they call “witches,” the old Portuguese ladies who wear black and stand in the doorway watching all the kids. We Sea too are lo-fi in sound, not only out of choice, but because the cost of producing an album in such a limited musical environment has meant that they’ve had to be DIY about recording.
AZOREAN HIP HOP: A SMALL SCENE OF LOCAL RAPPERS PUTS ON FOR THEIR ISLANDS
Perhaps the most unique musical subculture on the island is that of Azorean hip hop. Rap has taken Portugal by storm recently, and the Azores are no different, but it’s been tougher to foment a scene across nine islands that are quite traditional and where there aren’t even enough venues to host shows in. Take Fugitivo, a young Azorean rapper. Because of egos and skepticism, he believes it is absolutely essential to first make it big on mainland Portugal before you can be accepted by your own people. “People don’t want to see the guy they went to high school with making it, but they’ll get behind it after the mainland is into it,” he says. “I’m one of the best Portuguese rappers. Period.” For his sound, he found inspiration in American rapper J. Cole, who is from North Carolina and not the more typical rap meccas of New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. “I think of North Carolina as the Azores of America,” he says. “With J. Cole you can hear his whole journey in his music.”
Then there’s Goldshake, a 25-year-old rapper with a man bun and a 23-year-old brother with dreads who makes all his beats. He’s been rapping (he started as a local battle rapper) since he was at least 15. “The elders would look at us like we were gangsters,” he says. “I talk about smoking weed. I talk about a friend who is in jail. I went through shit.” He and his brother have different opinions about whether to rap in English or Portuguese – his brother believes English will help him have an international presence, but Goldshake is committed to his mother tongue. He wants to show that this can be done on Azorean terms. “My mama didn’t accept me being a rapper in the beginning – people only see a future for you if you study in the mainland. If you stay here, they think, what are you gonna do? Be a fisherman or a farmer?” he says. “I want to give voice to the Azores.”