“You’ve arrived a day late,” said Khyra, the local singer we befriended outside a bar on our first night in Cape Verde. “Yesterday was the big night here in Praia.”
In the capital city of this West African island nation off the coast of Senegal, it appears that Friday is the Sunday of the weekend. When people here want to go out to hear some music, dance and drink grogue, the island’s potent sugarcane-based spirit, they do it on Thursday, or sextinha (little Friday, as it’s known locally).
Not being privy to the Thursday hoopla, my husband and I arrived in Praia on a Friday. With Khyra and a group of newfound friends, we landed at Serenata, a neighborhood bar in Achada Santo Antonio, a district that rises gently up from the Atlantic.
In Serenata’s courtyard, we took over a plastic table shaded by a large leafy tree. For what was supposed to be a low-key evening, things didn’t appear particularly quiet. 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 instrument consisting of an iron bar scraped up and down with a metal object. The locals sang along. When a particularly groovy funaná came on, a middle-aged couple got up to dance.
It could have been because of the grogue caipirinhas that I was dutifully 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. The crowd swayed around me. The night swayed, too.
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. No matter how many times I hear Évora’s “Sodade,” sung in her warm, husky voice, it never fails to inspire 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 Evora’s celebrated mornas, the soulful ballads sung in the smoky bars of Cape Verde. Every time I heard her tunes, I felt a longing for something long lost, or something I never had.
It’s this feeling of bittersweet pining — saudade, or sodade, as it’s called in Cape Verdean Creole — that pervades Portuguese culture and that of its former colonies. The “queen of morna,” as Evora was also known, sang of love, loss, slavery and homesickness. Sailors from the islands would leave for long periods in search of better lives but dreamed of home and the women who waited for them back on shore. The women longed for their men at sea.
Yet there’s something serene and collected in these sorrowful mornas. I particularly love listening to them on long trips away from home. I find their syncopated sadness soothing. They somehow ease the discomfort of heading into the unknown. And 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. I’ve amassed so much of it that by the time 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.
And so it was that we wound up at Serenata our first night on Santiago, the largest of 10 islands in the arrow-shaped Cape Verdean archipelago. Here began the musical odyssey that would take us to eight of the nine inhabited islands.
But it wasn’t just the music that wowed us on these isolated flyspecks poking out of the ocean, whipped by Saharan trade winds and surrounded by stormy Atlantic seas. They pack a punch panorama-wise, too, 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 Cape Verdean people, and the music that most seduced us.
On Fogo, a dramatic island known for the giant cinder-clad volcano that rises out of an ancient crater, we hired a driver for the day. At 5:30 a.m., before daybreak, a red pickup arrived outside our guesthouse. A light-skinned man came out and introduced himself as Albino. Albino would take us to the conical — and still active — Pico do Fogo, which we would climb. (Little did we know that we were in for the scariest descent of our lives, down a steep, nearly vertical wall of loose volcanic rock.)
Back down in Cha das Caldeiras, the crater with a pair of pretty villages perched inside it, we met up with Albino again. On the drive back toward the island’s capital, Sao Filipe, we chatted about the famed Arabica coffee grown on terraced hillsides on the island’s eastern side, near the town of Mosteiros. We talked about life on the islands, and the hardship that comes with their isolation. Albino told us that he’d given the United States a try and 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 that he was related to the Mendes Brothers, whose song “Cor Di Rosa” is one of my all-time favorites. From Albino, I learned that the song I love so dearly, with its subtly sad syncopated tune, is talaia baxu, a violin-heavy music genre native to Fogo and focused on rabeças (violins) and the ukulele-like cavaquinhos.
A couple of days later, in the middle of humming “Cor Di Rosa,” my husband suddenly exclaimed: “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-flavored Mindelo, the urban star of Sao Vicente island and Cape Verde’s unofficial cultural capital. We’d connected with a friend of my husband’s from Lisbon who now 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 local hip-hop star by the name of Tip, the two breaking into “ ‘M Cria Ser Poeta,” a morna by contemporary musician Paulino Vieira, followed by much laughter and clinking of glasses.
You know you’re in Cape Verde when everything turns into song.
My birthday ended with shots of grogue at Jazzy Bird, a speakeasy-style basement where friendly owner Vou presides over the bar, with a huge poster of Évora and a tenor saxophone once owned by the late player Luis Morais mounted on the wall.
The following night, we were back at Jazzy Bird for a weekly music jam. Little did we know that 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” was featured in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film “Talk to Her.” That night at Vou’s, Bau played guitar and a local performer named Kappa sang. Two songs struck a chord: a rendition of “Sodade” and a nameless morna that moved me to tears.
Early the next morning, with the morna still in my mind, we moved on by ferry to Santo Antao, an island known for its fertile valleys, pine-clad ridges and stark canyons. We spent the first night in end-of-the-road Ponta do Sol, a tiny town on the edge of the Atlantic, where the only music came courtesy of giant waves that crashed on the cliffs, beyond which lay . . . nothing.
On the second day, we headed to Paul valley, a lush landscape strewn with hamlets, flowers and fruit trees — breadfruit, banana, bougainvillea and sugarcane. (Paul is said to have the island’s best grogue.)
On a late afternoon meander through the valley, along a quiet country road that leads through the string of villages, we ran into a merry bunch of men, their good mood fueled by guitars and grogue. My husband and I must have been a curious sight in this middle-of-nowheresville, and a chitchat ensued, in Creole.
I couldn’t understand a word, until my husband and the merry bunch suddenly broke into song. It was the same tune by Paulino Vieira from my birthday dinner. Admittedly, they sounded quite out of tune — blame it on the grogue — so we bade them a friendly goodbye and left for a ramble up the valley.
A few hours later, we began our ascent along the footpath leading up to the inn where we were to spend the night. By the time we’d reached the middle of the path, night had fallen. We climbed slowly, carefully, guided by the moon and our cellphone light. The twinkle of the inn appeared still far up the hill when suddenly, at the point where two paths diverged on the hillside, there was the merry bunch again. Like long-lost friends, happy to see one another after a lengthy absence, my husband and the hillside crew broke into song again. Even I, not much of a singer, hummed along, in the bush, in the dark.
As we sang in the middle of that verdant valley on that moonlit night, I zoomed out. It was one of those rare moments when you manage to step outside yourself for a split second, to observe the scene as if from above. There we were, a pair of vagabonds on a hillside on a flyspeck in the mighty Atlantic, singing a morna with a couple of merry rambling strangers.
You know you’re in Cape Verde when everything turns into song.
Mutic, a New York-based travel writer, researched Cape Verde for the upcoming “Lonely Planet West Africa.” Her Web site is www.everthenomad.com.