As music streaming has become widespread, global attention has become fixed on Spanish-language performers, and rightly so: That language fueled eight of the ten most-viewed music videos on YouTube in 2018.
But music with lyrics in Portuguese has also experienced a major boost — the baile funk hit “Bum Bum Tam Tam,” by MC Fioti, became the first clip from Brazil to reach one billion views in September. And music from some regions of Africa, especially Nigeria, is increasingly popular as well — Davido’s single “Fall” is even enjoying some play on American radio.
Dino d’Santiago, a Portuguese singer of Cape Verdean descent, hopes to further both these trends with Mundu Nôbu. The album came out last year but continues to bubble: “Como Seria” was still one of the most Shazamed songs in Portugal earlier this week, alongside international pop hits like Bad Bunny’s “Mia” and Calvin Harris’ “Promises,” and d’Santiago released a video for the single on Thursday.
Mundu Nôbu is a poised hybrid — traditional rhythms plus a low-end attuned to modern dancefloors, hand-played instruments smoothed over with gleaming electronics, lyrics in both Creole and Portuguese. The album also pulls styles from across the Portuguese-speaking world, with a focus on countries around Africa. “Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola, Brazil, Guinea, São Tomé: each country had its own sound,” explains d’Santiago. “Now we finally are combining those and transforming it into one unique sound.”
D’Santiago’s parents relocated from Cape Verde to Portugal after the former achieved independence from the latter in the mid-1970s; they were devout, so he joined the church choir at a young age. “In the Nineties, hip-hop came to Portugal,” d’Santiago recalls. “Rappers always needed a singer, so they said, ‘ok, let’s bring Dino from the church, he’s from our ghetto too, so it’s easy.’ I was the singer of the hooks, and then I started to write my own songs.”
The singer’s church chops, combined with his apprenticeship as a hip-hop hook-man, helped him develop into an adroit, resourceful vocalist. “He’s one of those singers who can track down a whole set of harmonies in a few minutes, bang, bang, bang, all beautifully in time and in tune,” says Seiji, an English producer who made his name in the club scene in the 1990s and worked heavily on Mundu Nôbu. (D’Santiago is no slouch as a musician either: To start “Raboita Sta. Catarina,” which is as reverent as it is danceable, he played a guitar part and beat-boxed both bass and drums, according to Seiji.)
Exposure to hip-hop also informed d’Santiago’s lyrical sensibility, which he says is, “activism focused, with a message that elevates.” Collaborators describe d’Santiago’s project in grand terms: “When Dino picks up a microphone, he carries the strength of a social utopia connecting all the different Portuguese-speaking communities that live around Lisbon,” says Branko, a co-producer on “Nova Lisboa.” “The beats hypnotize the population,” d’Santiago adds. “But when they’re dancing, I’m talking about slavery, about how African women are not treated well.”
That hypnosis is achieved through rhythms that will likely be unfamiliar to most American listeners. One is batuku, which d’Santiago calls “the most ancestral rhythm in Cape Verde.” “It came from the slaves taken from Africa by the Portuguese,” he adds. “It was played by the ladies when they went to the rivers to wash the clothes.” “Sô Bô,” an airy tribute to d’Santiago’s wife, melds batuku with the Angolan style known as kizomba.
The singer also relies on funaná, which he traces back to the rhythm of workers cutting sugar cane in Cape Verde. “Men from the countryside used to do it, and since my childhood funaná was in my house,” d’Santiago explains. “Everyone starts dancing, even if they don’t know it — the rhythm is that strong.”
One listener who was introduced to funaná by d’Santiago was writer-producer-engineer Rusty Santos, who has previously worked with Animal Collective and DJ Rashad. “At first I had to figure out how the drum patterns go, the between-the-beat places where you put the snare,” Santos says. He got the hang of it and went on to co-write and co-produce the track “Nôs Funaná.” “We slowed it down to 90 bpm — normally funaná is up at 134 bpm or higher — so it had a different feel than the classic funaná,” Santos adds. Some of the percussion on the track is played with kitchen knives, a fixture in the genre.
In addition to Seiji and Santos, two other key figures in the creation of Mundu Nôbu were Kalaf and Branko, both former members of Buraka Som Sistema, a Portuguese group that helped bring Angolan kuduro to a European audience and popularized a fusion dubbed zouk bass. “Buraka Som Sistema created what we now call the sound of Lisbon,” d’Santiago explains. “We have finally transformed that for singers using those types of beats. Now ‘Nova Lisboa’” — a sly, pinging track co-written by Kalaf, Branko and the producer Pedro — “is the anthem in the city. One part of the mission is done: We put the songs in the club and the DJs didn’t even need to remix them.”
Another part of d’Santiago’s mission remains: To unite Portuguese-speaking listeners outside of Lisbon around his sound. The singer travelled back to Cape Verde this week to continue to promote his album, and he has a series of shows planned later this year. “African music is still blowing up and of course the Portuguese-speaking countries are going to have a big part in that,” Seiji says. “Nigerians, Ghanaians and South Africans have set the pace. But Dino’s already making sure that Cape Verdean music is part of the conversation.”