Jose Manuel Cerqueira Afonso dos Santos, commonly known as Jose Afonso or Zeca Afonso, was born on February 23, 1929, in Aveiro, Portugal. As a judge, his father was appointed to various posts throughout the Portuguese colonies in the first half of the 20th century. Jose spent his early years in countries such as Angola and Mozambique as well as Portugal, living with his parents off and on and spending many years in the city of Coimbra pursuing his education. He began singing in his teen years, which earned him special status at the University of Coimbra. Afonso became something of an icon among the older students, but his social status came at the expense of his schooling (he finally graduated in 1948 after two failed attempts). He married in secret that year due to his parents' disapproval. Shortly after the birth of his son Jose Manuel, Afonso released his debut record, though no copies remain. His marriage to Maria Amalia de Oliveira would produce two children and last only seven years. During this time Afonso began philosophy studies at the Associação Académica de Coimbra, graduating in 1955. His passion for philosophy and politics would shape the course of his recording career, which was formally initiated by his 1956 release, Fados de Coimbra.
While maintaining his musical career, Afonso also began working as a teacher in the public schools. Over the course of the next several years his works would become increasingly confrontational regarding Portugal's fascist regime, a stance that eventually cost him his teaching career. In 1967 Afonso signed with the Orfeu label, which agreed to pay him a set amount each month provided that he record one album per year, an arrangement that would produce nearly three-quarters of his discography. In the early '70s, Afonso began formal relationships with political groups such as the PREC and numerous political candidates. Though his recordings had always been political in nature, by 1978 he was viewed more as a revolutionary figure than a musician, performing at rallies and making records comprised entirely of political critiques. In 1981 Afonso was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. With many of the politicians he had once supported now in power, Afonso was showered with accolades, including the Order of Liberty and City of Coimbra's Gold Medal, many of which he refused. His last recording, Galinhas do Mato, found him too weak to sing his own compositions, drawing instead on Portuguese recording stars like Luis Represas and José Mário Branco to sing for him. Jose Afonso died in February of 1987, his funeral attended by more than 30,000 people. His compositions continue to be played, recorded, and released. Jose Afonso is generally regarded as one of Portugal's most influential folk musicians of the 20th century. ~ Evan C. Gutierrez