Zé Manel was born in Bissau, the capital city, on May 22, 1957. At age six, he formed a band to play music at boy scout camp. Soon the band was playing weddings, baptisms and birthday parties, and its members took their craft so seriously that some were forced to leave. By age seven, young Zé, playing drums and acoustic guitar, had become the main attraction of this band, named Super Mama Djombo after the female spirit of a sacred offering place. When Guinea-Bissau won its independence from Portugal years later, Orchestra Mama Djombo became a primary vehicle expressing the new national identity.
The pressures of success brought the end of the band by the mid 80’s. In 1982, Zé released his first solo album Tustumunhos di Aonti (Yesterday’s Testimony), which sounded the alarm over the formation of a new, repressive ruling class. The album was a national event (people in Guinea-Bissau today still sing the songs from this soulful, relevant album), but the political environment was heating up and Manel’s fans were concerned for his safety. It was becoming increasingly easy to « disappear. » He was given a scholarship to study abroad—one of the more pleasant means of removing voices of dissidence.
Manel left Guinea-Bissau for a Portuguese conservatory to study classical music, opera and piano. Upon completion of his studies, Zé played for a year on the Paris scene, then moved to Oakland, California to equip a studio.
Manel’s second solo release Maron di mar marked Zé’s return to Guinea-Bissau for the first time since 1983. The album touched a nerve with people there, and Manel is once again a national hero. The struggle for dignity and new possibilities that drove the revolution continues today, as a society strives to affirm democracy and identity. Thanks to Zé Manel, Kriol music once again aids that fight, providing a counter-narrative to potential constitutional fictions.