Sara Serpa and Emmanuel Iduma Share Stories of “Intimate Strangers”

In the pursuit to connect with the humanity of a stranger, fewer acts are as powerful as hearing their stories and sharing our own. On their poignant new collaboration, Intimate Strangers, Portuguese vocalist-composer Sara Serpa and Nigerian writer Emmanuel Iduma explore the author’s personal journey through the African continent, collecting the tales of fellow travelers and migrants he has met along the way. Iduma reads excerpts from his book, A Stranger’s Pose, as Serpa — along with vocalists Aubrey Johnson and Sofía Rei, pianist Matt Mitchell, synth player Qasim Naqvi, and Morocco-based Cameroonian poet Onesiphore Nembe — paints a background of dissonance and uncertainty. Shimmering soundscapes follow Iduma as he navigates the struggles and emotions he and these strangers experience, leaving their roots behind to seek the promise of a distant horizon. 

Intimate Strangers also serves as a continuation of a narrative that Serpa began with her 2020 release, Recognition: Music For a Silent Film. Grappling with the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Africa by dissecting her own family’s history, Serpa works to invert that narrative with this newest album, gazing back at colonial powers from the vantage point of Africa and through the perspectives of Africans themselves.  

Sara Serpa--Photo by Carolina Saez

Sara Serpa–Photo by Carolina Saez

“There were a lot of stories in Emmanuel’s book that really resonated with me,” Serpa explained. “Through his travels and encounters with so many people just trying to cross into Europe, Iduma raises all these questions about traveling, migrating, and leaving your home behind.” According to Serpa, Iduma’s work presents the vital perspectives of real, lived experiences shaped by the relics of colonialism, its impact on borders, and political imposition upon those born into a world rife with discord and precarity. 

Due out December 3, 2021 on Biophilia Recordings, Intimate Strangers draws from Iduma’s travels through more than a dozen African cities, sharing meditations on migration and displacement over a soundtrack of harmonizing vocals and plinking piano keys. In “Lokoja – Okenne,” Serpa’s sung lyrics work in tandem with Iduma’s recitation of witnessing men seeking work on the streets of Okenne, Nigeria. Sounds of the hustle and bustle of a lively street market weave in and out underneath Iduma’s mesmerizing storytelling, transporting listeners to the early morning sun and crowd of shops, idle men, and revving motorists.

Emmanuel Iduma--Photo by Ayobami Adebayo

Emmanuel Iduma–Photo by Ayobami Adebayo

Similarly, “How Do You Know Where To Go” incorporates samples of water splashing on the side of a boat as Iduma’s story recounts a boy who “sees neither east nor west, only water.” Here, Serpa strikes an even balance between drawing the listener’s focus to both the music and the poetry while avoiding one overpowering the other. Collective recitation with the vocalists and Iduma together creates a very stirring moment, reaching a crescendo that emphasizes the content of Iduma’s writing.

In other parts of the album, however, readings of the poetry are hard to hear over swelling vocals and droning synths. “The Poet,” which features Onesiphore Nembe reading in French, begins with mentions of “rebelle” (rebellion) and “poubelle” (garbage bin) — a curious pairing of words. Yet the rest of the poem cannot be heard as Serpa begins singing over Nembe, feeling almost dismissive of the words and instead prioritizing the texture of the poet’s voice. Though this creative choice fits the theme of the piece, as it is called “The Poet” rather than “The Poem,” drowning out the words of a Cameroonian poet with the vocals of a Portuguese singer seems to recreate a certain dynamic of creative colonialism — that is, prioritizing the work of a European artist over an African artist.

Sara Serpa and Emmanuel Iduma--Photo by Da Ping

Sara Serpa and Emmanuel Iduma–Photo by Da Ping

Similarly, the overall melodic structure of the album feels fitting at first by capturing the stress and disorientation of migration and displacement, but without the words, the soundscapes themselves don’t progress much further. Serpa could have enlisted the help of African collaborators to incorporate more West and Central African tonal structures and bolster the settings of these shared stories. Iduma’s book is, in part, a travelogue of migrants’ journeys, but the music remains static overall, not fully embracing the imagery of movement and transient interactions conveyed in Iduma’s writing. 

Ultimately, while Serpa’s compositions fit well with certain narrative themes, they fall short on others. That isn’t to say that Intimate Strangers overall misses the mark. In fact, Serpa succeeds in contextualizing these stories in an entirely different medium, which is no small feat. However, certain literary themes feel glossed over through her interpretations, which is perhaps inevitable in collaborations between different artists and in the pursuit of bridging different mediums. 


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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