The Sands of Cape Verde
by John Cho

In the sky you are a star
That does not shine
On the sea you are the sand
That does not moisten . . .


During the harmattan season in West Africa, the air thickens with the Saharan dust blown in by the persistent northeasterlies. The sky turns soupy yellow, the stars are obscured at night, and your lips start to crack from the unusual dryness. Clothes collect dust over the course of the day, and floors must be constantly swept to keep the desert from encroaching on your home.

Three hundred miles westward across the Atlantic Ocean is a group of small islands that seem to sketch out the broken pieces of a fossilized mandible. Incredibly, the harmattan winds can transport tiny pieces of the African continent across the open water to occlude the vast sky of the Cape Verde islands. The same winds then sweep off dust from the islands and deposit it as far away as the Caribbean.

Although named after Cap Vert, the nose tip of Senegal that is the closest continental point, the irony of the misnomer cannot be lost on even the most casual visitor. There is some evidence that Cape Verde might have been green a long time ago, but ever since the first inhabitants arrived from Portugal in 1462 the islands have been bone-dry, essentially a maritime extension of the Sahel. Periodic droughts have routinely killed tens of thousands of people per cycle and have driven even greater numbers to emigrate to other Portuguese (ex-)colonies and to New England through a connection with American whalers who used Cape Verde as a supply and trading stop. Currently, more Cape Verdeans live abroad than on the islands, and a significant portion of the national earnings comes from the remittance of the expatriates.


Scattered throughout the world
Rocks and sea . . .


Given such a history filled with loss and departures, plus having the Portuguese (themselves known for their pensive nature) as their European component, it is no surprise that the popular musics of Cape Verde are steeped in melancholy. Alienation and a forced abandonment of roots have also played a role, as the bulk of the population is composed of the descendants of African slaves from various ethnic backgrounds who were cut off from their histories and had to develop a creole language and culture under a particularly ruthless colonial regime. An obvious analogy is the development of another great music of melancholia, the blues, also by slaves and their progeny in the United States.

The most sodade (the Kriolu version of the Portuguese word that embodies all this yearning and sorrow) and quintessentially Cape Verdean popular music is the morna. Developed in the early nineteenth century, perhaps influenced by the Luso-Brazilian modinha, the morna usually consists of a literary poem set in a minor-key with a moderate 4/4 meter, i.e., a doleful ballad. A solo singer is backed up by a small string ensemble with, typically, a violin, guitar, twelve-stringed viola, and cavaquinho (a ukulele-like instrument also used in the Brazilian samba). There is some resemblance to the Portuguese fado, but without the heavy melodic ornamentation and the dramatic rubato.

To the rest of the world, the morna may have remained just another obscure local music if it had not been for the "discovery" of Cesaria Evora in 1988 by the French record label Lusafrica/Melodie. Her dolorous contralto voice--topped with a touch of hoarseness that betrays her years of hard drinking and smoking, but which lends an edge of authenticity to her words of longing and regret--is the perfect instrument of melancholy. A veteran of several catastrophic droughts, a brutal colonial government, and three husbands, the 55-year-old grandmother has come a long way from the time when she sang barefoot, unable to afford shoes, in the dockside cafes of her hometown Mindelo. With a self-titled album debut in the U.S. last year and a world tour this year, she has become the most famous Cape Verdean of our time. Yet she has kept her custom of taking to the stage sans shoes, claiming that she feels more comfortable that way.

Now based in Paris, Evora herself has become part of the diaspora, a most brilliant grain of sand carried aloft by the winds of international commerce. When she sings of her "little country" we feel the strength of her yearning, the longing across longitudes, the sodade for a home that lies somewhere beyond the hazy horizon.


Such nostalgia
Such endless nostalgia
My little country I love you so.

Cesaria Evora's discography:

Le Diva aux Pieds Nus (Lusafrica/Melodie)
Mar Azul (Lusafrica/Melodie)
Distinto di Belita (Lusafrica/Melodie)
Miss Perfumado (Lusafrica/Melodie)
Cesaria (Lusafrica)
Cesaria Evora (Nonesuch)
Cabo Verde (Nonesuch)


Originally published in The San Juan Star
Copyright 1996, John Cho


JC is an atmospheric scientist by profession, but he moonlights as a world music columnist for The San Juan Star. A returned Peace Corps volunteer (Sierra Leone, '86-'88), he also writes fiction and travel stories. E-mail: jcho@naic.edu
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