‘The Lusophone Sound Is Coming’: Inside Dino D’Santiago’s Intricate Fusions

Cape Verde-born, Lisbon-based singer released a new album, Kriola, on Friday

“Amarillo,” the first song on J Balvin’s new album Colores, opens with a riff that’s brassy and playful, like a child imitating the sound of a trumpet. That happens to be a sample cribbed from Saïan Supa Crew’s “Angela,” a fusion of hip-hop and zouk, a style of music from the French Caribbean; Balvin merges it with the reggaeton rhythm that has become global club currency. Tracing the jet-setting musical elements in “Amarillo” can be dizzying, but tracing the song’s impact is straightforward: More than 50 million streams on YouTube and Spotify in just two weeks. 

At least one of those streams came from the Cape Verde-born, Lisbon-based singer Dino D’Santiago, who perked up as soon as he heard that sample. “It’s a zouk sample that was played a lot during the early 2000s in Europe,” he says. “Now it’s in a single that’s taking the world.” 

That’s a heartening sign for Santiago, who is pushing his own island-hopping hybrids into an increasingly receptive music marketplace: D’Santiago’s 2018 album Mundo Nôbu won Best Album at the first edition of the Portuguese Music Awards, held last year. His latest release, Kriola, is out Friday; it draws from the music of Cape Verde, Lisbon, London, Angola, and Nigeria, among others.

Mundo Nôbu was a manifesto of sorts. “The intention was to show a new way [for Lusophone artists],” D’Santiago explains. “Everyone was trying to replicate the U.S. formula or the English formula for the pop or hip-hop sounds. We said, ‘we can replicate those, but let’s keep the roots of our rhythm.'” It’s the same approach that helped other regional forms, like reggaeton and baile funk, spread around the world, except in D’Santiago’s case, he’s focused on Cape Verdean rhythms like batuku and funaná.

As D’Santiago cemented his aesthetic, he also developed a new way of working. “In the past, I was always waiting for inspiration to come,” he says. “But I learned I can create the opportunity for inspiration. This is what I love to do — it’s my job too. I went to London, we rented a house, made two studios, every single day we woke up, talked, read a lot, listened to a lot of music, and made music.” 

This led to a spurt of productivity — Mundo Nôbu was followed by the five-track Sotavento in October and now Kriola — and allowed D’Santiago to continue sharpening his particular blend of sounds. Kriola contains a pair of D’Santiago’s most effective tracks, starting with “My Lover,” which he wrote with Kalaf Epalanga (a former member of the Lisbon club-wreckers Buraka Som Sistema), Seiji (an English producer who made his name in the club scene in the 1990s), and Pedro Maurício (a Lisbon producer who releases music frequently on the local Enchufada label).

“My Lover” is the type of kinetic, pretty song that could jolt a dance floor to life in pretty much any capital city around the Atlantic — driving, pin-prick guitar, slippery, sharp percussion that will be familiar to fans of afrobeats, and a simple hook in English, even as the majority of the song is in Cape Verdean creole. “The beat is not sweet,” D’Santiago says. “That track is talking about love, but the beat is like a war song.” 

He follows that with the title track, a funaná that turns into a double-time accordion-led romp. Pedro produced the beat along with Branko, another Dino collaborator and former Buraka Som Sistema member. “It’s the first time he did a funaná,” D’Santiago says. “A lot of them are built around old flavors. [Branko] told Kalaf, I think he needs a funaná that will take him to 2020.” 

On “Kriolu,” D’Santiago is joined by the young rapper Julinho KSD, a rising star in Portugal who had two of the Top 20 songs on Spotify in the country earlier this week. “[Julinho] never thought he could write in a funaná beat — no rapper ever did it,” D’Santiago says. But he sounds confident barreling along next to the accordion on “Kriolu.” After Julinho cut his verse, D’Santiago was practically beaming with pride: “I told him, ‘now you can say that your mom will be really proud.'” 

These are all signs that the Mundo Nôbu blueprint is gaining followers. “Julinho is one of the first rappers doing what we wanted on Mundo Nôbu,” the singer says. “And he’s streaming very big in Portugal.”

D’Santiago adds simply, “the lusophone sound is coming.”