Easily one of Africa's prettiest cities, Mindelo dazzles the first-time visitor with its smooth sidewalks gleaming in the sun, narrow black cobblestone streets that are spotless, pastel houses trimmed in light paint and roofed with Cape Verde's ubiquitous orange tiles. The houses climb up the volcanic mountain slopes that surround the blue-green water of the harbor.
With a population of about 35,000, the city is the largest in Cape Verde -- the island nation off the west coast of the African continent that won independence from Portugal in 1975. Mindelo's residents have the reputation of being more sophisticated than the 30,000-odd people of the capital, Praia, on Sao Tiago Island to the south.
On a recent Saturday night here, the Atelier-Mar Galeria (the equivalent of a Greenwich Village coffee house) had four guitar players and a violinist play several hours of traditional types of Cape Verdean music, from the jaunty, polka-like sounds of mazurkas to the haunting, stirring melodies of the mornas. The mornas grew out of the nostalgic tradition of Portuguese fado music. They are sad songs about the hard life on these islands, of forced separation caused by centuries of emigration by men searching work, of the hour of farewell between lovers, or of jealousy and loneliness. All these songs are sung in the islands' creole language evolved from the blend of African and Portuguese cultures.
On Sundays in Mindelo, the barbershops and cafes are gathering spots for young and old. Outside the barbershops, the men play ouri, a game brought here from the African mainland and played in every part of Africa. It involves trying to capture your opponents' beads or pebbles by shifting them one by one, each man taking alternative rounds, through 12 hollowed-out scoops in a wooden board. The men will even try to explain the rules to a stranger, and if he nods his head at the appropriate pauses, as if he understood every word, he might get invited to a tasty midday fish lunch.
THE AFRICAN heritage of the islands is most evident among the rustic inhabitants of Sao Tiago, the island that is home for about 120,000 of the 300,000 people scattered among nine islands. As you move from Praia into the interior of Sao Tiago, the lighter skin shades of the capital's residents give way to the darker hues of the peasants.
Each island has a unique history and divergent cultural patterns. For example, the creole spoken on the northern islands of Sao Vicente, Santo Antao, Sao Nicolau, Boa Vista and Sal Rei differs markedly from that spoken in Sao Tiago, Fogo, Brava and Maio in the south, according to Cape Verdeans.
Sao Tiago, the largest island with the greatest amount of agricultural land, had the largest ratio of African slaves to Europeans when the Portuguese maintained plantations in earlier centuries. Each morning the peasants bring their farm produce into Praia and in the evening return to the countryside in the backs of pickup trucks.
In Praia's harbor is the old slave-sorting island, which witnessed a lot of activity between the 16th and 19th centuries. More recently it was a leper colony, but it is unused today. While practically all Cape Verdeans are, like their culture, a mixture of Portuguese and African, some ancient African religious rites are still followed in the interior of Sao Tiago. The batuque is a ritual African dance invoking spiritual possession of two women who dance lasciviously in a circle of hand-clapping women. Although it is still performed, the old spiritual purpose has been lost, according to the islands' 71-year-old amateur historian, Felix Monteiro.
It is also still danced in Brazil by descendants of the Africans who were sorted out on Praia's harbor island for the trip to the Americas, Monteiro said, "but there it has retained its spiritual significance." The slaves who were thought too weak to make the trip were kept in Cape Verde.
Sao Tiago is also the only island with tabancas, centuries-old African mutual aid societies that resemble a sort of social welfare organization that exists in black communities in the American South.
"It is easier to identify vestiges of Africa in the countryside of Sao Tiago than the other islands," Monteiro said.
FOGO AND BRAVA islands have the distinction of supplying the first and largest numbers of Cape Verdean immigrants to the New England region beginning in the 1700s. American whaling ships used to save money by leaving the eastern seaboard with half crews and picking up the excellent sailors, for very low wages, from Fogo and Brava when they reached the seasonal whaling seas around Cape Verde. The proportion of slaves to Portuguese on Fogo and Brava was small, resulting in a very light-skinned population. The whaling captains preferred them to other Cape Verdeans not only for their skills as sailors but also because they caused little problem when taken to the United States since they could pass for swarthy Portuguese or other whites, Monteiro said.
"Once they got on the boats, most of them did not come back to Cape Verde," he added.
The small island of Maio has the distinction of having been attacked by a 30-gun schooner captained by George William Plank of Baltimore on Nov. 30, 1818, just three days before the arrival of Samuel Hodges, the second American consul assigned here. Hodges reported back to the American government that Plank, with his pirate crew of Americans, English, Irish and Spanish, broke into the Maio port's Customs House and took all the money and stores. While the pirates sacked and pillaged the city, the residents fled into the interior of Maio.
"Besides Portugal and Africa, we have very old and long ties with Americans as well," Monteiro said laughing, after several hours of poring over yellowed documents in his home library. "I could spend several days talking about them.