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As a music genre, the batuku is characterized by having an andante tempo, a 6/8 or 3/4 measure and traditionally it is just melodic, i.e., it is just sung, it has no polyphonic accompaniment. When compared with the other musical genres from Cape Verde, the batuque has a call and response structure, and it is the only genre that is polyrhythmic. In fact, analyzing the rhythm, one finds out that it is a 3-beat rhythm over a 2-beat rhythm.
In older times the music began with an introduction on the cimboa that provided the base musical line. Nowadays the usage of that instrument is extinct. The first movement is called, in Creole, galion [ɡɐliˈõ]. In this movement one of the performers (called batukaderas [bɐtukɐˈdeɾɐs]) executes a polyrhythmic hit, while the others execute a 2-beat hit, clapping hands or slapping a cloth. The lead singer (called kantadera proféta [kɐ̃tɐˈdeɾɐ pɾoˈfɛtɐ]) sings a verse that is immediately repeated (called ronca baxon [ˈʀõkɐ bɐˈʃõ]) in unison by the remaining singers (called kantaderas di kunpanha [kɐ̃tɐˈdeɾɐs di kũˈpaɲɐ]). These verses, improvised proverbs that talk about a variety of subjects such as praising personalities, social criticism, quotidian scenes, are called finason [finɐˈsõ]. This call and response structure goes on until the second movement.
The second movement is called txabéta [tʃɐˈbɛtɐ]. This movement corresponds to an orchestral climax in which all the players execute the same polyrhythmic beat, and all the singers sing the same verse in unison that works as a refrain.
Nowadays, recent composers have composed the batuque in a different way. The music leans on a polyphonic support (chord sequences), and shows a similar structure to the other musical genres in Cape Verde, in which the musical strophes alternate with a refrain.
As a dance, the traditional batuque follows a precise ritual.
In a batuque session, a group of performers (almost always just women) gather themselves in a circle in a scenario that is called terreru [teˈʀeɾu]. This scenario does not have to be a precise location, it may be a back yard in a house or it may be a public square, for instance.
The musical piece begins with the players (that may be simultaneously or not batukaderas and kantaderas) executing the first movement, while one of the players goes to the center to perform the dance. In this first movement the dance is made only with body swinging, with an alternate movement of the legs playing the downbeat.
In the second movement, while the players perform the rhythm and sing in unison, the dancer changes the dancing. Now, the dancing (called da ku tornu [dɐ ku ˈtoɾnu]) is made with a hip swing managed through the quick flexion of the knees, accompanying the rhythm.
When the song is over, the dancer pulls back and another takes her place, and a new song begins. These performings may last for hours until the end of the batuque session.
The batuque is probably the oldest musical genre in Cape Verde, but there are written records of it only from the 19th century. Presently it is found only in Santiago, however, there are clues that it existed in all the islands of Cape Verde.
According to Carlos Gonçalves, the batuque is not a musical genre that originated in the African continent. It would be an adaptation of some African dance (which one?) that later has developed its own characteristics in Cape Verde.
The Portuguese administration and the Church have always hostilized the batuque, because it was considered “African”, but during the policy of Estado Novo this hostilization was stronger. The batuque has even been forbidden in urban centers, and it managed to be a dying musical genre from the fifties.
After the independence there has been an interest in the revival of some musical genres. But it is in the nineties that the batuque has experienced a true rebirth with young composers (such as Orlando Pantera, Tcheka, Vadú) doing research work and giving a new form to the batuque, being sung by also young singers (such as Lura, Mayra Andrade, Nancy Vieira).
In ancient times the batuque had a precise social meaning. It was performed in holy days, in certain ceremonial occasions, in feasts, before and during weddings. There are some scholars who speculate that the dance movement of the batuque has a sexual meaning and the goal was to promote the fertility of the bride.
Nowadays the batuque has lost its original meaning. It has been transformed in a stage performance, and it is performed in official acts, in parties or it is used by some groups to give an example of Cape Verdean folklore.