Sara Serpa’s new album started out as the soundtrack for a film she assembled to chronicle, and critique, Portuguese nationalism in Angola. The film consists of Super 8 archival footage from the period of colonial rule that ended in 1975, together with new material, to remind us of the past, remind us that subjugation, brutality, and resistance never went away. The music itself, though—available through Biophilia after Serpa previously planned to self-release—stands admirably alone, posing its own questions and challenges.
When Serpa sings lyrics (rarely on this set), she summons a sweet, full, clipped delivery reminiscent of the Free Design’s Sandy Dedrick. But she makes vocalise her stock in trade, confident and succinct on each vowel sound. Space, regimented space, always rules the roost: Serpa out front, but pianist David Virelles slotted in right in back of her, furnishing counterpoint. Zeena Parkins follows them on harp and occasionally lets fly with tuning forks. Mark Turner’s saxophone wanders in and out of the mix, his rough tones flaring and flaming out, embers not quite escaping a bonfire.
Such regimentation does unfold into actual lyrics, at times. A spoken-word section detailing colonial horrors, for example, loops around itself a few times for a sound-collage arabesque. Another track reminds us of Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, a fascinating warrior queen and diplomat I’m betting you hadn’t heard of (I hadn’t, at least). Such tracks leave the ambiguity of the wordless stuff behind, but they acknowledge, de facto, that the project has a lot of ground to cover. Film or no film, I encourage you to tune in.