Considered the most ancient musical genre of Cabo Verde islands, batuku is a cultural manifestation that combines singing and dancing but brings a much profound meaning. This manifestation was brought or invented by the first slaves that arrived to the archipelago and lives through these days in the islands of Santiago and Maio as an uncontested African heritage and testimonial of Cabo Verde's historical path.
An art loved in secret
Once forbidden by law, batuku has been long considered an offense to Christian values, the official religion of the Portuguese empire in colonial era. Still, batuku has prevailed. In their quarters and/or in the backyards, the slaves still assembled the "tereru" (the circle where they sang and danced the Batuku). In their poems filled with sentimental feelings, the slaves expressed their unrest, their desire of change, their bitterness of slavery, the pain and suffering but also the little joys of their everyday lives.
In a society marked by slavery the «batuku» was assumed as a form of expression. Men and women gathered in circle, nonetheless, it seems like batuku has always been a territory of female prevalence. The hours spent in the «tereru» were the only moments of freedom and there they were queens and ladies. There, they were admired for the synchronized singing, for the energetic and sensual dance and more than that, they were heard and respected.
The prohibition on Batuku by the slave owners contributed to a false idea that it was generally associated to women of suspicious behavior. Interaction with batuku was denied to the women that wanted to be respected and viewed as good role models.
But despite its controversial social status, the batuku was constantly present in families gathering and social meetings. It was through the sound of txabeta, batuku's rhythm, that marriages, baptisms and many other important events were celebrated. Through the voices of the «batukaderas», the women that played batuku, they expressed their critical views of society and relieved their pained souls.
Batuku represents the blossoming of the female soul and the expression of her vision of the world.
It is a group art, with a very well organized hierarchy and internal structure. On top of this hierarchy there is the main singer. She is the poet that improvises the verses that combine with the txabeta. She is the prophet that announces changes to come and criticizes the status quo in a firm and rhythmic voice and so often melancholic. Sat in circles the "kantaderas di kumpanha", the women that make chorus to the lead singer, respond with a vibrant and well synchronized chorus.
The popularity of Batuku is not only due to the hot rhythms of txabeta but also and mainly due to the "torno". That is how it is called, the characteristic dance of batuku where the hips follow the musical cadence.
The music starts slow and as it goes, it gains rhythm and pace until it reaches its peak. It is only than that the dancers come in with their hips moving at the rate of the txabeta. The swinging of the hips demands body control and coordination but it seems natural to the dancers that flow with the music.
The dance is one of the most appreciated elements of batuku as two or three dancers show off their skills. The movement is centered on the hips and the rest of their body must not move at all. And to prove their abilities many of them dance with objects on top of their heads that remain still despite the frenetic movement of their hips.
As the rhythm intensifies also does the clapping and whistling as a sign of approval. The batuku feeds of this energy. The invitation to join the dance is made through the passing on of the cloth that is tied a little below the person´s waist so it can enhance the hip movements.
Besides the more energetic component batuku also presents itself in a more cadenced and melodic form. That is the «finason». In this case the txabeta works as background tune to some sort of chanted poem. It is with finason that some big names of the cabo verdean popular wisdom eternalized themselves, such as Bibinha Cabral, Nácia Gomi or Ntoni denti d'óru (Ntoni golden tooth, since he had one in his mouth).
One finason song can last hours in the flow of improvisation.
These are verses composed by humble people, rural men and women without any literary education who did not read or write. Yet, they produced authentic relics of the cabo verdean oral tradition, most of which was lost in time.
Through finason advices were given, remarkable moments were told and people reflected on the creole experiences.
From generation to generation the tradition resisted. Today batuku has gathered the prestige it deserves and groups are born especially through the island of Santiago where it is more popular.
Besides its purest form, the batuku is also presented in a more elaborate form in the hands of many cabo verdean songwriters. They bring to the txabeta new instruments such as the guitar, the Harmonica and percussion. Maybe it is a return to the past, to times where the circles of batuku were also composed with the chords of the «cimboa», also known as cimbó, an instrument that has almost fallen into oblivion.
This traditional genre is treasured by cabo verdeans all around the islands and it has become one of the post cards of the archipelago. Batuku has gained prestige and is highlighted on national and international stages.
Today, more than ever, batuku is the fearless voice of women that face the past as part of a path always in the making.