Sara Alexandra Lima Tavares (born 1 February 1978) is a Portuguese singer, composer, guitarist and percussionist. She was born and brought up in Lisbon, Portugal, where she still lives. Second-generation Portuguese of Cape Verdean descent, she composes African, Portuguese and North American influenced world music. She composes in Portuguese and Portuguese-based creole languages. Although Portuguese is the main language of her songs, it’s not rare to find in her repertoire multilingual songs mixing Portuguese with Portuguese creole and even English in the same song (e.g.”One Love”).
Tavares won the 1993/1994 final of the Endemol song contest Chuva de Estrelas (performing Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time”), which helped her win the Portuguese Television Song Contest final in 1994, consequently earning a place in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, with the song “Chamar a Música” reaching 8th place.
She’s also known for singing the European-Portuguese version of “God Help the Outcasts” for the Disney movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which won a Disney award for the best version of the original song. She also won a Portuguese Golden Globe for Best Portuguese Singer in 2000.
Sara Tavares showed great musical promise from a young age; in 1994 she won the national television song contest Chuva de Estrelas, performing Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time”. That same year, she won the Festival da Canção, that earned Tavares a slot in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest at the age of 16. Her winning song, “Chamar a Música,” was featured on her debut EP, Sara Tavares & Shout (1996), where Tavares mixed gospel and funk with her native Portuguese influences.
Her debut album Mi Ma Bô was produced by Lokua Kanza and released in 1999.
In 2017, eight years after Xinti, Tavares released Fitxadu. The album was inspired in Lisbon’s different African sounds and cultures and features a more electronic and urban sound than Tavares’ previous works. The album received a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Portuguese Language Roots Album.
Sara Tavares has named Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin as her favorite childhood artists. Her music is noted to feature a blending of cultures, particularly those of Portugal and Cape Verde. Tavares is among a group of Portuguese-born artists of African origins, that helped bring African influences to mainstream music in Portugal.
Sara Tavares was only 16 years old when she won two of Portugal’s most prestigious TV music contests. Born out second generation Cape Verdian immigrants, Sara, 27 years old, grew up between two cultures. Initially known as a singer and composer of Gospel, Funk and Soul, she gradually incorporated more of her African music in her compositions. Her second album Mi Ma Bo, produced by Parisian Lokua Kanza, reached gold in her native Portugal and was a mix of African rhythms and melodic pop songs. After a long wait of five years, finally her new album Balance was released in February 2006. In this record produced by Sara herself, she wrote and composed all the songs and played many of the instruments. Balance is a beautiful record in which Sara shows to be a very talented contemporary singer/song writer, that has managed to combine in a subtle and honest way contemporary music with her African roots.
“There is a big, big generation of Cape Verdeans and other Africans here in Lisbon, in Paris, in Boston, all over… with a kind of messed-up identity,” says Sara Tavares. “Our generation feels very lost because there is no culture specifically for us; that talks about our reality.”
“When I walk around with my friends, it’s a very, very interesting community,” Tavares explains. “We speak Portuguese slang, Angolan slang, some words in Cape Verdean Crioulo, and of course some English. In Crioulo there are already English and French words. This is because slaves from all over the world had to communicate and didn’t speak the same languages. We are a metisse culture.”
Multilingual wordplay shows up throughout Tavares’ album, and she hops across cultural references as much as she embraces any. The album title Balancepronounced bal-on-SAYhas many different meanings. The noun balanco is used in Portuguese when music “swings.” Lusophone Africans use the verb form balance in a more general way. “When you are eating something really good you say ‘this food is balance'” explains Tavares.
“For me song ‘Balance’ is also about balancing yourself,” Tavares continues, “between sadness and joy; day and night; salt and sugar. It’s about balancing emotions. You are always walking a thin line and you have to keep your balance. You have to dance with that line in order to keep standing. If you stay too rigid, you will fall.” “I was in Zimbabwe a few years ago and I saw some really drunk people dancing,” Tavares chuckles. “We were watching them, and they were always almost falling and then they would catch themselves. Just like those people dancing, I also want to dance with that kind of freedom and balance.”
Tavares’ sweet voice and gentle arrangements communicate this meaning even if you cannot understand all of the lyrics. Her voice has a healing power which comes from someone who has struggled with her place in the world and then accepted herself fully. This is the voice of a woman whose parents left her. In the ever so Cape Verdean search for a better life, her father left for America; her mother moved south. Tavares was raised by an older Portuguese woman. Through music she sought out her family and cultural roots, along with the help of veteran African musicians in Lisbon and back in Cape Verde where she travels every year.
“The whole album is like little lullabies to myself,” says Tavares. “All the messages are about self-esteem, loving yourself. About liking what is different in you. About integrating all the parts of you.” ‘Bom Feeling,’ whose title combines a Portuguese word with an English word that “everyone uses,” translates as ‘Good Feeling.’ While some people look down on the Portuguese slang associated with African people in Portugal, Tavares embraces it. Tavares says she is from a “broken home” and identifies with street culture.
‘Poka Terra’ is influenced by Afro-Beat and semba (a style from Angola). The song’s title is an onomatopoeia for the sound a train makes. Tavares is calling on people to catch the train of consciousness and to become responsible for yourself. She sings “An alligator that sleeps will be turned into an alligator bag sold in some store.” On ‘Planeta Sukri’ (Sugar Planet) Tavares places a reggae style sound system on top of a traditional Cape Verdean rhythm coladeira (a style made popular by Cesaria Evora). “The poem of this song can be seen as a love poem,” says Tavares. “I am saying ‘Take me to a sugar planet, take me to place where there is no sadness, no cries. And this place is inside of you and me and everyone.’ I mean it more in a spiritual way than a romantic way. The ballads are very much like little prayers.”
Tavares talks to the moon on ‘Muna Xeia’ (Full Moon). The song title emerged when Tavares made a mistake and accidentally combined the English word ‘moon’ with the Portuguese word for the same ‘lua.’ “It’s a very feminine song with me talking to the women,” Tavares explains. “First the woman inside of me and then the women in Africa and the women in the world. I sing, ‘Moon go in peace, moon go in faith, walk in peace, walk in faith.'”
Two years ago, Tavares spent time in Cape Verde working with a contemporary dance company. “You know how contemporary artists do crazy experimental stuff?” she asks. “Well, they gave me the strength to experiment. If those who live in and own the culture, then we in diaspora can also experiment. As long as someone keeps the tradition. It’s a two-sided knife.”
“I want to be a part of a movement like the African Americans were, like the African Brazilians were,” Tavares says. “Instead of doing the music of their ancestors, they have created this musical identity of their own. And it is now respected. It is considered whole and authentic and genuine. It will be a long time before the people from my generation do not have to choose between being African or European. I think you shouldn’t have to choose. You should just be there. Celebrate that. Be that”
Her new album, Xinti (Feel It) has just been released in Europe and North America.
The singer who won the first Chuva de Estrelas, at just 15 years old, and won the Festival RTP da Canção in 1994, with Chamar a Música passed away at the age of 45, victim of a brain tumor last Sunday, November 19, 2023.