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PAM Meets Ary Kueka: the island melodies of Santo Antão

With Cape Verde’s 2023 Atlantic Music Expo in full swing, PAM takes you back to meet a thoughtful and endearing man, a poet and musician, who took us on a journey to his island, Santo Antão.

Ary Kueka is a singer, songwriter and local hero on the island of Santo Antão in Cape Verde. Known for his seaside bar and the success of his first album Sampadiu, Ary has a story to tell, and a perch from which to tell it. Losing his parents at a young age, Ary was forced to face the difficult realities of life early on. This struggle pushed him to the rejuvenating power of music, but also to the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol. “I had to leave home when I was 7 years old. I slept on the street when I was 7. I started drinking at 7,” Ary explains of his troubled past. “I think that because of this void caused by the loss of my parents,” he continues, “I have developed a certain sensitivity for music, for nature and for art.

One day, in the fog of addiction, Ary was struck with a revelation after hearing one of his songs on the radio. He realized that in order to make his dreams of becoming a serious musician come true, he had to make a radical change. With the help of Harmonia founder, José da Silva, famously known as the manager of the late great Cesária Évora, Ary got the guidance he needed to work on himself and a studio project. The result is the free-form island sounds of Sampadiu. Dabbling in folk, reggae or bossa nova, and with the touching vocals found in Cape Verde’s morna music, the project is a lyrical brew of Ary’s island sound. His natural songwriting, emotional voice, and the accompanied arrangements of master José da Silva come together for a little-known island treasure. 

Not to say that Ary didn’t earn his laurels locally. When giving a tour of his bar and restaurant, Ary proudly shows his four awards from the 1st Annual Cape Verdean Music Society (SCM) Awards: “Best phonographic producer”, “Best performer”, “Best author” and “Best composer” for the song “Escravatura Moderna” (Modern Slavery).

We discovered Ary performing on stage in Mindelo for the Atlantic Music Expo. Holding his guitar and singing to a local crowd, the public sings the words back with passion. It’s clear that Ary’s music has made its mark on the island. Singing about the state of nature and the meaning of the good life, Ary’s music is redemptive and universal, and, of course, beautifully composed. The morning after his performance, we follow Ary to his native island of Santo Antao, an hour ferry ride from the port of Mindelo where the documentary begins. There we find an undeveloped natural oasis. A once active volcano, the island is now a towering figure upon the Atlantic, with a massive crater at its peak, one side barren and rocky with the vicious grooves of ancient magma tracks, the other lush and tropical, winding with trees and vines. On the lush end of the island sits Ary’s outdoor bar. Here he cooks, serves and tends bar for patrons who all know his name. 

Ary then takes us for a walk higher up into the brush for the magnificent views of Santo Antão. Here he speaks of his relationship to nature, the ultimate inspiration for his music. Walking with his guitar he sings of rainwater that falls but is not recovered, pining over the accessibility of grogue (a local rum) whose distilleries pepper the island coast, while drinking water is bought in small plastic bags. Along the way Ary stops to say hello to everyone. Young and old, Ary embraces each of his fellow residents with a word and a smile. Cars and buses stop to shake Ary’s hand. In moments of lull, Ary swings his guitar to his chest and plucks a melody. 

Narrated by Ary from the studio of José da Silva in Mindelo and accompanied by a live recording of his acoustic guitar and singing, this PAM Meets is a voyage into the intimate life of an artist who has transformed himself and now serves as a role model and pillar of a small island community. Dive into the nature of Santo Antão, the story of an orphan turned entrepreneur and breathe the “morabeza” (sweet life) of Ary’s music. 

The 2023 Atlantic Expo is held until April 14 in Praia (Cape Verde). 

Find the full program here.