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Café Tatant: Roxbury’s latest home for community talent

Jacquinn Williams
Café Tatant: Roxbury’s latest home for community talent
Singer Michelle Cruz recently performed at Café Tatant in Hibernian Hall. (Photo: Michelle Cruz)

Providence based singer Michelle Cruz performed to a full house last month at Café Tatant — Roxbury’s newest supper club — in Hibernian Hall. Every other Thursday, Café Tatant provides a venue for up and coming jazz musicians to perform and gives locals a chance to hear good music without leaving the neighborhood.

An ambitious but much needed idea, Café Tatant, just may jump-start Roxbury’s renaissance once the kinks are worked out.

Like most buildings in Roxbury, Hibernian Hall has a rich history. Built in 1913, it’s gone from a dance center for the Irish community to a job-training center in the 1970s to being abandoned later for decades. After Madison Park Development purchased it and rehabbed the building, the hall has slowly become a community center where dance rehearsals and plays are held and movies are shown.

On one recent night, dinner was provided by George Huggins of Ethnica Gourmet. It took an hour to come out and some patrons had to remind waitresses of missing utensils, but it was Cruz’ lilting voice and the bartender’s great customer service and easy smile that made waiting a little easier.

Cruz sang selections from her latest album “The Recovery” and an acapella piece by soul sista Erykah Badu. After the show, the Banner got a chance to chat with Cruz — who recently performed at a memorial service for Cape Verdean Tuskegee Airman George Lima — about life, her culture and what’s next in her career.

When did you decide to pursue music?

I decided to pursue it professionally after performing at a Jeff Buckley Tribute Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2003. The first time I knew I wanted sing? That had to be in third grade singing the national anthem for the Pawtucket Red Sox with my class. I had a little solo. It was an amazing feeling standing there. I knew what I wanted. It just took time to develop.  

Is your family supportive?

They really wanted me to pursue something else. I come from a musical family (my uncle, Malaquias Costa wrote and performed music for Cesaria Evora). Cape Verdean parents tends to look down on a woman who wants to get into music, never mind put a guitar in your hand. They are coming around though. I think singing the song I wrote; “Deixa” for the president and first lady of the Azores made them (my parents) take me seriously. I saw the pride in their eyes. I think my mom is still waiting for me to go to grad school though. I was invited to speak about music education in 2006 at Stanford University. I think my mom was hoping I would stay there!

Tell me about the Azores Awards. How did you become involved and how was the trip?

I was actually singing for the president of the Azores during his visit to the USA last year that ended up on Portugal TV. I have been trying to learn more Portuguese and understand my extended family a bit more. I challenged my dad and said I would try to write a song in Portuguese. I sang it at an event and was invited to the president’s welcoming reception and got to bring my dad along with me. Going over the correct way to address the president in Portuguese with my dad is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life.

How did your love affair with jazz begin?

My godfather had a Nat King Cole record and I loved listening to his stories about Harlem. I soaked in everything he said and started listening to things on my own. I credit Eric Jackson from WGBH as well since I used to listen to his show almost every night to see what he was playing.

Did your family ever want you to sing Cape Verdean music like morna or funana?

Oh yes! Most of family does not like jazz at all, which is kind of funny. I always get asked: Oh jazz? Folk? Hmmm. When are you going to sing some Cape Verdean music? I tried to tell them that one of my favorite jazz artists was Cape Verdean, Mr. Horace Silver, but they are more interested in traditional songs. I do like morna and will probably do some of that soon. I remember my mom and aunts singing those songs when I was a kid. It (morna) is the Cape Verdean blues. Haunting. Those songs really touched me as a kid.  

What’s the theme of your album “The Recovery?”

 “The Recovery” was created in the two-year period following the unexpected death of my longtime love. It was an artistic reawakening, born from tragedy’s devastation, a testament to the restorative power of art, music and love.  

Do you write all of your music?

 I write all lyrics and music to all my songs except two that appear on “The Recovery.”

What’s the worst job you ever had?

Oh. That’s easy! I was a canvasser for an environmental cause where they literally dropped you off in the middle of nowhere and expected you to knock on each door for people to sign a petition. It was getting dark and they still had not picked me up. I called my brother and he drove me home. It was my shortest job ever; it was a four-hour job.

The best advice you’ve ever been given?

Folk legend Odetta (one of the reasons I picked up the guitar), was chatting with me about my music and aspirations at the Newport Folk Festival a couple years back. She was happy that I was playing guitar and trying to work in different genres. I remembered she grabbed my hand at the end of the conversation, looked me in the eye and sternly said: “Do well.” It wasn’t what she said but how she said it. I strive to be better everyday and handle adversity onstage or off with grace and strength.