Did you know that a lusophone is a person who speaks Portuguese? No? Neither did we; but we do know what to call someone who sings in Portuguese. Lula Pena. Brought here by the World Music Institute, now celebrating its 30th year, and performing last night at Drom in the East Village, Ms. Pena is a language unto herself.
We generally eschew "popular" music for several reasons: the venues are generally filled with people who drink a lot and get very LOUD; the amplification hurts our tender ears; the songs are often vacuous.
None of this was true last night. The standing-room-only crowd was silent and the amplification was minimal. The songs, composed by the artist herself, were replete with soul and the soft sensual sounds of Portuguese. Although the language shares Latin roots with Spanish, French, and Italian, it has its own particular nasal quality and a "zh" sound not found in either of those three. We listened up and were able to identify only a few words--words like love and heart and never and girl and moon and fooled and imagine.
So, like most songs, we conclude they were about love. What we loved best was the gentle intensity of the timbre of her voice. We did not hear the raw anger that one hears in Flamenco music. Ms. Pena is an unassuming performer without a whiff of "celebrity" and for that we choose to celebrate her.
We are always amazed when a singer accompanies him/herself without cheating either form of expression. Ms. Pena handles her guitar most artfully; in her hands it sometimes carries the melody, produces harmonies both simple and complex, and finally it becomes a percussion instrument either through use of the lower strings or by tapping. Packed too tightly for dancing, the best the audience could do was to sway to the insistent rhythms.
At times we heard a consistent bass note on the lowest string with an impressive variety of arpeggios and strange chords filigreed against that. At times we heard sounds reminiscent of the rasqueado from Flamenco music. Much of the music is in a minor key with hints of a Moorish mode.
We were held spellbound for well over an hour. We wanted to learn more about this artist who rarely performs; we learned very little online. She seems to be a rather mythic figure in the world of music. But she is memorable! If you are curious, she has recorded and can be heard online. We are still listening.
(c) meche kroop