Violence. Brutality. Segregation. Exploitation. These are the words that singer/composer Sara Serpa uses when she talks about the family legacy that she inherited—a legacy that her latest musical projects tackle head on. 

Serpa’s parents were born in the 1940s in Angola, then a Portuguese colony in Africa.  First-hand they witnessed the atrocities that the Portuguese government committed against blacks in their country. Later, after they’d moved to Lisbon, Portugal—where Serpa was born—they demonstrated publicly against these injustices. And though Serpa doesn’t say as much, their social conscience informs Serpa’s work today.

“There is an absence of conversations of race in Portugal, even though Portugal has had a relationship with Africa for 500 years and was chiefly responsible for the slave trade,” explained Serpa, who takes first-place honors in this year’s singers category. “Having a family that lived [during that colonial period], I always asked a lot of questions about it. Racism is still very present in Portuguese society, but it’s not talked about enough.”

With one of her latest works, Recognitions, Serpa opens up that conversation. This project—a pastiche of clean, melodic compositions, silent Super-8 films from the family archive, and texts by African revolutionary thinkers—began in 2017 as part of a program curated by composer John Zorn at The Drawing Center in New York City, Serpa’s hometown today. By then, Serpa had been singing Zorn’s a cappella compositions with the vocal quartet Mycale for about four years and was soon to release Close Up (Clean Feed), her 10th album as a leader/producer; Recognitions represented her first foray into directing and composing a live interdisciplinary piece. She plans to release a recording of the ongoing project in both audio-visual and audio-only formats later this year.

After the Recognitions debut, Serpa found that she still had more to say about Europe’s historical relationship with Africa and its unacknowledged pain. Earlier this year she unveiled her second live interdisciplinary performance piece, Intimate Strangers, which melds original music with text, images, and field recordings. This time she worked with Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma, taking inspiration from his book A Stranger’s Pose, a deeply personal account of life across the African continent. Serpa thinks that Intimate Strangers, too, might become an album at some point. She revealed this musingly, but it’s worth noting that her musings often become realities.

After moving to the U.S. in 2005 to attend Berklee College of Music, and later New England Conservatory of Music, Serpa quickly gained attention for her cool, wordless vocals. Besides avant-gardist Zorn and her Mycale cohort (singers Sofia Rei, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, and Malika Zarra), she was soon working with the likes of Grammy-nominated pianist Danilo Pérez, saxophonist Greg Osby, and two MacArthur Fellows—drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Ran Blake. But it’s hardly surprising that Serpa would attract such talents given the gemlike quality of her instrument—and how she uses it.

“There’s something pure and fragile about her voice,” said saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, who makes up one third of Serpa’s regular trio (with cellist Erik Friedlander). “She uses very little ornamentation, very little vibrato. I love that about it. It’s super atypical for jazz singing, and it’s quite hard to sing that way. If you don’t bend into notes or use a lot of vibrato, you really have to hit the pitch, and that’s what she does.”

To Laubrock’s point, it would be a mistake to underestimate the vocal control that it takes to sing as Serpa does—softly, in straight tone, with dead-on pitch. Add to this challenge Serpa’s nuanced compositions, all exposed lines and hidden harmonies, subtle segues between notated and improvised sections, and lots and lots of space, pregnant with meaning. “There’s no place to hide,” she admitted.

Not that Serpa is looking to hide anything. She speaks forthrightly not just about racism in her native country, but about sexism in her adopted one, in the music business specifically. “People talk about the male gaze, but I haven’t heard anyone talk about the male listener,” she said, lamenting the lack of diversity in jazz. “We’ve been shaped by the male gaze and by the male listener. So what happens when that perspective shifts?” 

Questions about how we navigate differences in gender, race, and country of origin remain top of mind for Serpa. “I think about this issue of identity…and this thinking drives the themes of my work,” she said. “Our past—personal, historical, or national—we are all affected by it.”

(Reprinted from the August 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine)