I’ve been meditating on the word “carefree”. Have you ever felt truly free from worry? Weightless in the face of all the heaviness of the daily grind? I can’t recall a time when I was truly released from life’s many burdens, whose numbers can get as long as the grocery list staring down on me from that spot on the fridge, just goading me with its lines full of responsibilities. Leering at me like I don’t have so many other things I’d rather be doing than worrying about worry. I think we spend the last few decades of our time on this plane figuring out a cure for this, like that much sought-after fountain of youth. Or maybe that is the fountain of youth, a worry-free life. I haven’t yet found a cure, but I have found some solace in Bongo Joe’s Léve-Léve: São Tomé and Principe Sounds 70s-80s. Léve-Léve is the first ever compilation, put together by DJ Tom B, devoted to music from São Tomé and Principe, two small islands situated off the coast of Gabon in central Africa. The music is bright and sunny and a clear example of the titular idea of léve-léve, a colloquial reminder to “take it easy,” man.
I’m currently reading a book about the way creativity can be stifled by our fears. The trick, the author notes, is not to kill our fear but to learn to ride with it. To accept its presence and the job it’s trying to do and politely say, I appreciate you but no thanks. I think that is also the key to living with worry. And I think that lesson can be found on this album. The songs unravel a story of liberation where the music of Africa, Europe and the Americas unify with the carefree spirit of léve-léve. DJ Tom B put in a lot of work to give us this compilation of sounds that reveals the social and political history of a place most of us have probably never even heard of before this.
São Tomé and Principe has a long history of slavery and Portuguese colonialism. Like other African slaves worldwide, those in São Tomé and Principe used music as a way to get through it, to unburden themselves of their daily reality. Music was a way to contain history, to commune with family and to importantly, live a full life in the face of all the heaviness that surrounded them. Through the years leading up to independence from Portugal, music would be a fundamental voice of liberation and conviviality. Léve-Léve is full of distinctive Angolan semba and merengue, Brazilian afoxê, coladeira from Cape Verde and dance music from the Caribbean, it is a sound fiercely proud of its island heritage, sung in local dialects and using distinctive local rhythm. And to me, it is a reminder that I do not have to kill my worries to be carefree. I can dance alongside them, shoot they’ve earned a dance or two, don’t you think? I can thank them for their hard work and say no thank you, you do not get to have the driver’s seat anymore.
The songs on this album are long-most of them are between 5 and 8 minutes, which I’ve come to love because it gives the groove time to really sink into your bones. The lesson of Léve-Léve doesn’t get lost in the commotion of the song, it has the space to settle in for the long haul. To bury your feet in the wet sand of the sonic tides. “Zimbabwe” is one of my favourites because it is the perfect example of diaspora music; it’s at home in either place. It belongs to both while being distinctly of its place. It is music that could only exist here because the rhythms exude the history, the knowledge of that land. “Tola Muandgi” sounds sweaty, like humidity and hair sticking to the back of your neck. It sounds like being at an open-air bar in the moment right before you stop dancing to go sit down and take a bite of fish that you wash down with a warm beer. That’s a carefree moment if I ever had one.
When I first heard this album, I was excited to feel the island sun in the middle of the cold dreary winter. And these songs do sound like island music, that is a fact. But I think there is a lot of romanticizing that happens to music like this. That whole idea that life must be so easy living on the beach all day. This album I think is proof that, in fact, it’s not- the music was born during some of the most terrible parts of world history after all. So, I don’t think its that the music comes from a place of carefree-ness. I think rather, they have learned to dance with their grief. They have learned to laugh at it, to love it, to hold it tenderly in their arms as they sway to and fro with it. If you take anything away from this album, let it be a lesson in that.