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Sara Tavares, guitarist-composer, succumbs to brain cancer at 45

Cabo Verdean community plans tributes to honor musical giant

Gus Martins
Sara Tavares, guitarist-composer, succumbs to brain cancer at 45
Cabo Verdean singer, guitarist Sara Tavares PHOTO: HENRYK KOTOWSKI

Lisbon-based singer Sara Tavares’ recent passing has left a void in Afrobeat and world music and a deep melancholy among her international fan base.   

Tavares, 45, succumbed Nov. 19 to brain cancer, which she had been diagnosed with more than a decade earlier, derailing a career in which the guitarist-composer had put a stamp on a musical identity that won her deep affection and notoriety throughout the world. 

Tavares was born in Portugal’s capital city to Cabo Verdean parents. Here in the Boston area, musicians from the local Cabo Verdean community want to ensure the deceased musical star’s contributions continue to reign supreme. They have planned a series of tributes in her honor, with one set for Jan. 5 at Dorchester’s Restaurante Cesaria. Proceeds will go to “Criolas Contra Cancer,” a Boston-based organization that supports cancer sufferers.

“What a loss,” said Pawtucket-based drummer Carlos “Kalu” Monteiro, who will perform at the show along with his longtime bass-playing partner Djim Job.

“She was extremely talented,” Monteiro added. “She was very musical and very knowledgeable about what she was doing in terms of her musicality and musical direction. She could play the guitar and percussion and she was really good at them. On top of it all, she had a wonderful personality, and that came out in her performances and in general.”

Monteiro, a prominent composer, studio-sessions drummer and on-the-road musician for several decades, praised Tavares’ uncommon abilities that began to attract notice when she was just 14 singing a Whitney Houston song in a national competition in Portugal.

Among her well known songs were “Balance,” “Ginga,” “Coisas Bunitas” and “One Love.” 

A fan in her formative years of Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, she was guided by the American soul performers before she began blending the rhythms of Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil and interspersing lyrics from several languages in her songs.

She seemed the perfect combination of her ancestral homeland mixed with Lisbon’s cosmopolitanism. Her acoustic guitar playing style, near-perfect English and worldly sophistication were but three examples of the latter.

Her singing possessed the soft power of a disarming femininity. A light but soulful voice easily scaled the upper ranges against a music that was rhythmic, melodic, percussive and groove-oriented.

Brazilian listeners likened her to male superstar Djavan, and perhaps a bit of Al Jarreau existed in her vocal delivery. She was often backed on stage by another guitarist or two, a bassist and two percussionists.

Tavares made two official Boston appearances as she was building her name. She attracted the attention of local concert promoter Maure Aronson, whose organization “World Music/CRASHarts,” as it was called in the early stages, had welcomed the top artists in that genre from around the globe.

“We had the pleasure and privilege of presenting Sara Tavares twice in Boston, first in 2007 and then again in 2009 at the Berklee Performance Center,” he said. “She was a singular voice for the people of both Cabo Verde and Portugal.”

Aronson said he does remember Tavares getting ill and surmised that it slowed her down as she was nearing or already into full career ascension.

“She was diagnosed in 2009 with a brain tumor and went on to live many more years with that diagnosis,” he said. “Unfortunately we never had the chance to bring her back to Boston.”

Aronson said he remembers a talented and vibrant artist growing in the organic way musicians in non-pop musical categories do, by word-of-mouth, person-to-person and through thoughtful media record and concert reviews.

“When I look at the numbers when we presented her, the concerts drew very well,” he said. “We sold 692 tickets in 2007.  This was a very respectable audience for an artist appearing for her first time in Boston. In 2009 we sold 781, so this was an artist that was on a path of growth. I do think that diagnosis might have impacted her touring career.”

Tavares might have even been slightly alien to Boston’s Cabo Verdean community, who may be more accustomed to the traditional musical styles they remember back home. As time went on, Tavares began incorporating more elements of those styles in her music, but her musical inclination pulled from different parts of the globe.

Monteiro said he saw and hung out with Tavares when her cancer was in remission and she had resumed touring.

“She played in Cranston, Rhode Island, in November of 2015,” he said. “Then I went to see her in New York at City Winery a few days later. My wife Carmen had a New York office she worked from a couple of days a week. So my wife met up with me. Sara didn’t know we were going. So she was on stage and the place was packed because it was sold out. The tables there are next to each other and we’re sitting next to these American couples. When she leaned over looking through the crowd, her jaw dropped when she saw us. She was so down to earth, and it was a great show.”

In 1994, at age 16, she represented Portugal in a Eurovision song contest, finishing in eighth place singing a song called “Chamar a Musica.” 

Tavares was influenced by other Cabo Verdean artists, Monteiro added, notably Gerard “Boy Gé” Mendes, who was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal’s Cabo Verdean community. Mendes, who came to fame in the 1980s as a member of the band Cabo Verde Show before going solo, also possessed a blended musical style, and the two shared similarities in their approach.

“She was a big fan of Boy Gé Mendes,” he said. “Boy Gé inspired her a lot. They were good friends and he also played with her on some tours. Also I think she was inspired by [multi-instrumentalist producer] Paulino Vieira. They worked together in her early days. I see a mix of Boy Gé in her along with the Afrobeat, her guitar licks. It’s beautifully done. I think she was on the verge of getting even bigger.”

Tributes following her death have poured in from near and far, including from Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

Cabo Verdean President José Maria Neves left this note of appreciation: “You’ll still be with us, Sara, saying beautiful things! Your light will illuminate the path that still lies ahead of us in this land that temporarily welcomes us. Until forever, dear friend.”

Cabo Verdean, Cape Verdean, music, Sara Tavares