The heartbeat of Cape Verde
Praia, Cape Verde - “You’ve arrived a day late,” said Khyra, the singer we befriended outside a bar on our first night in Cape Verde.
“Yesterday was the big night here in Praia.”
In the capital of this West African island nation off the coast of Senegal, it seems Friday is the Sunday of the weekend.
When people here want to go out to hear music, dance and drink grogue, the island’s potent sugarcane-based spirit, they do so on Thursday, or sextinha (little Friday).
With Khyra and a group of newfound friends, we landed at Serenata, a neighbourhood bar in Achada Santo Antonio, a district that rises gently from the Atlantic.
In the courtyard, we took over a plastic table shaded by a large leafy tree. On a small stage at the edge of the yard, a band played funaná, upbeat music heavy on the accordion, the rhythm marked by the ferrinho, an iron bar scraped up and down with a metal object.
The locals sang along.
It could have been because of the grogue caipirinhas I was downing out of tiny plastic cups or the long first day of traipsing around Praia, or the sultry ocean breeze coming off the Atlantic. All I know is that on this first night in the remote archipelago we were about to delve into, my body swayed quite uncontrollably to the sound of funaná – and the crowd swayed around me.
Cape Verde first came to me through music. Many moons ago, I fell in love with the mournful songs of Cesária Évora, the “barefoot diva” who famously performed shoeless and pinned Cape Verde on the cultural map of the world.
Sodade, sung in her warm, husky voice, never fails to raise an intense melancholy in me.
With her voice came visions of faraway islands out in the Atlantic, swept by strong winds and sorrows. I’ve often wondered what it was that made me respond so strongly to Évora’s celebrated mornas. Every time I heard her tunes, I felt a longing for something long lost, or something I never had.
It’s this feeling of bitter-sweet pining that pervades Portuguese culture and that of its former colonies.
The “queen of morna”, as Évora was known, sang of love, loss, slavery and homesickness.
So Évora’s sultry contralto has often provided the soundtrack to my journeys. After her, other music from the islands made its way into my collection over time.
When I met my Angolan husband, he said: “You have more music from Africa than I do.”
When Évora died in December 2011, Cape Verde declared two days of national mourning. The islands wept, and I mourned at not having seen the barefoot diva perform live. So when I got an offer to spend three weeks on the islands researching a guidebook, it was the music that lured me to accept.
On Santiago, the largest of 10 islands in the arrow-shaped Cape Verdean archipelago, began the musical odyssey that would take us to eight of the nine inhabited islands.
Isolated flyspecks poking out of the ocean, whipped by Saharan trade winds and surrounded by stormy Atlantic seas, they pack a panoramic punch with their dreamlike valleys, mighty canyons, indigo-blue seas, wispy white dunes and virgin beaches.
But it was the morabeza, the hospitality and warmth of the people and the music that most seduced us.
On Fogo, a dramatic island known for its giant cinder-clad volcano, we hired a driver for the day, a light-skinned man who introduced himself as Albino. He would take us to the conical – and active – Pico do Fogo, which we would climb. Little did we know we were in for the scariest descent of our lives, down a steep, nearly vertical wall of loose volcanic rock.
Back in Cha das Caldeiras, the crater with a pair of pretty villages perched inside it, we met Albino again. On the drive towards the island’s capital, Sao Filipe, we chatted about the famed arabica coffee grown on the island’s eastern side, near the town of Mosteiros.
Albino told us he’d spent some time in Massachusetts, where most of America’s Cape Verdean community lives, because of the whaling ships that brought them over in the early 19th century.
But he’d missed home too much and came back to Cape Verde.
When our chat came to music, as it naturally does in Cape Verde, Albino mentioned he was related to the Mendes Brothers, whose song Cor Di Rosa is one of my favourites. From Albino I learnt the song I love so dearly is talaia baixo, a violin-heavy genre native to Fogo.
A couple of days later, in the middle of humming Cor Di Rosa, my husband suddenly exclaims: “I finally get the lyrics: Nos distino e Djarfogu / du ka ta trocal / ku nada des mundo: Our life on Fogo Island, we wouldn’t change for anything in the world.” There was something so satisfying about finally understanding the emotional weight of a song you’ve loved for years without understanding its lyrics.
A few days later, my birthday found us in Mediterranean-flavoured Mindelo, the urban star of Sao Vicente island and Cape Verde’s unofficial cultural capital.
We’d connected with a friend from Lisbon who lives in Mindelo and had ended up with her crew in a word-of-mouth pizzeria run by a Neapolitan man in the basement of his home in a sketchy part of town.
It was one of those nights.
My Happy Birthday was sung in a fusion of English, Portuguese, Italian and Creole. But it didn’t end there. The singing continued, led by my husband, who grew up in Angola on a diet of Cape Verdean music, and a hip-hop star by the name of Tip, followed by much laughter and clinking of glasses.
The following night we went to Jazzy Bird for a weekly music jam. Little did we know we’d catch an intimate performance by Bau, one of the islands’ best-known musicians, who toured with Évora for years and whose song Raquel featured in Pedro Almodovar’s 2002 film Talk to Her. Bau played guitar and a performer named Kappa sang. Two songs struck a chord: a rendition of Sodade and a nameless morna that moved me to tears.
On the second day, we went to Paul Valley, a lush landscape strewn with hamlets, flowers and fruit trees.
On a late afternoon meander through the valley, along a quiet country road, we ran into a merry bunch of men, their good mood fuelled by guitars and grogue.
We ran into them again later, going up the hill towards our inn.
Like long-lost friends, happy to see one another after a long absence, we all broke into song.
There we were, a pair of vagabonds on a hillside on a flyspeck in the mighty Atlantic, singing a morna with merry rambling strangers.
You know you’re in Cape Verde when everything turns into song. – Washington Post
l Mutic researched Cape Verde for Lonely Planet West Africa.