Q&A with Sara Serpa: Music, Film & History Merge


Vocalist Sara Serpa, a native of Portugal, is based in New York.

(Photo: Carlos Ramos)

Since moving to New York City from her native Lisbon, Portugal, in 2008, Sara Serpa has built a reputation as a versatile vocalist. Her crystalline, unwavering tone has led to work with pianists Ran Blake and Danilo Pérez, saxophonist Greg Osby and downtown composer/entrepreneur John Zorn.

When Zorn invited her to be a part of a series he was curating at the Drawing Center in Soho, Serpa initiated a project that would stretch her artistry in several new directions.

Recognition, the resulting suite of songs and improvisations, was presented Sept. 16 with Zeena Parkins on harp and Mark Turner on saxophone. An overtly political work about the Portuguese colonization of Angola, the program paired Serpa’s compositions with video from old Super-8 home movies her grandfather made in Angola, showing people working, protest marches and scenes of nature.

Your performance at the Drawing Center was surprising in a number of ways, not the least of which was the political component. What made you want to address the history of Portuguese colonization?

I had this invitation to do music and visuals and this subject was something that was important to me. It was not intended to be political, but once you start comparing situations and asking questions, it’s impossible not to be political. I’m very critical about some things about my country. My whole family, and country, has connections to Africa, but it is a sensitive and almost taboo subject.

Your grandfather’s films played a big part in establishing the narrative. Was he actively documenting the conditions in Angola?

He was documenting his life. There’s so much of the general picture, you can see the workers, you can see nature, transportation, demonstrations, the boats—he was really documenting everything.

There are also scenes of flowers and bees. Were those meant to parallel the worker scenes?

It was an association of ideas, and words: colonies, colonization. There are some things that I can’t say exactly what they mean, but there was this impulse to include the bees and the sunflowers. While watching these silent movies, you’re just kind of asking questions and there’s no one to answer them. I had to detach myself from it emotionally. It’s difficult to realize all these things happened and your family was somehow part of it.

There’s so much debate here, in the United States, about race, about the past, and I never heard that much in Portugal. I’m not expecting to be the voice, but I’m just discovering it and this is my way of approaching it. I wrote several screenplays. I spent so much time on it, also questioning—what’s my legitimacy to talk about this? It’s been a really interesting discovery for me, and it’s not over yet.

The context was also set by the words of one of Africa’s foremost anti-colonial leaders, Amílcar Cabral, which were paired onscreen with your grandfather’s imagery.

Amílcar Cabral was so clear about what was happening. There’s no ambiguity at all. I realized his words would be more powerful than anything I could write. He wrote the speech I quote from, “Unity and Struggle,” at about the same time these films were made, 1961.

There were many challenges in making this project—not just the film, not just the text. There were these practical things. I had to write simple music so I was confident that we could all watch and play. How can I write music that doesn’t interfere with the images and invites reflection? Music has this power of taking you to a place where you reflect. At some point I just had to be very practical; I just had to make this work.

You started your musical studies in classical piano. How did you come to jazz?

I am aware that besides classical music, I was exposed to film very early on. I lived by an independent movie theater, and started watching all these art films without always understanding them when I was 12, 13 years old.

I started studying jazz when I was 21 or 22. I never thought I would be a professional musician. I wanted to do music but I felt so scrutinized in the classical world so I thought, “Let’s try the jazz school,” and I was like, “Wow, this is a whole different approach. I can find a creative space in singing this music. I can try to learn improvisation.” There was this full surrender to it.

Do you still play piano?

The classical institution traumatized me a bit. I never felt I was good enough. But it’s a tool; it makes me feel centered.

You recorded an Amália Rodrigues song, “Cansaço,” on your 2012 album Aurora with Ran Blake. Was fado a big influence for you?

The first thing people think about about Portugal is fado; however, I didn’t grow up listening to it. Many of the people who fought against the dictatorial regime, as my parents did, hated fado. It was associated with the fascist regime, along with soccer and Fátima, the catholic pilgrimage town. I did not start listening to it until I came to the United States. I have this strange relationship with fado. At some point I tried to sing it but I just wasn’t feeling it. I think it’s an amazing way of singing but it’s not something that I do.

The only fado I revisit when performing with Ran Blake is “Mãe Preta,” about a black worker who watches the master’s children while her husband is beaten. That song, sang by Maria da Conceição, was censored in 1943 but the melody was so catchy that everyone remembered it.

Your three albums with Blake show your ability to interpret a song both within and outside the tradition. You started working with him when you were studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. How did that partnership come about?

I hadn’t heard about him when I was accepted there, but then I heard him play in a concert and I thought, “I want to study with this man.” We met every week for a year playing the same repertoire. It was with Ran that I started understanding more about singing in English: Through repetition and learning the words I was able to connect expression with emotions.

It’s so great to hear you signing standards with him. Have you considered exploring standards in other contexts?

At some point I would love to try it. Maybe the time will come. DB

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