An archipelago 350 miles from the Senegalese coast, Cape Verde has been shaped by harsh physical and cultural circumstances. Allegedly uninhabited when the Portuguese began haunting them around 1460, these barren, rocky islands went on to see one of the cruelest sides of the African slave trade: The Portuguese built fortresses and imprisoned West Africans there before sending them across the Atlantic to unimagined fates. Forced to intermarry with Portuguese, the Africans who remained in Cape Verde labored to build stone roads and dwellings and to work plantations, which were all but doomed in the hostile, dry climate.
Though its name suggests green bounty, Cape Verde suffered three long droughts during the 18th and 19th centurieseach time, more than 40% of the population starved to deathand there were more deadly dry spells during the 20th century. Even now, a time when sparse rains have returned and new techniques are reviving flora on some islands, farming is next to impossible. On one island, it has not rained for more than 10 years.
Today, about two-thirds of the world's one million Cape Verdeans live abroad, with the largest community in New England, where islanders first escaped after being recruited into whaling ship crews in the early 19th century. Many expatriates maintain ties with their 300,000 relatives in Cape Verde, even though they may never have visited there.
Cesaria Évora, the barefoot diva and queen of the melancholy morna, is the country's best known musician internationally. Surprisingly though, Cape Verdeans around the world never really heard her until she made her first record in 1987. Recordings of more dance-oriented Cape Verdean styles, like the coladeiraoriginally, a fast take on the mornaand the funana with its rebellious lyrics and African rhythm, did circulate, and these styles continue today. But the rise of Évora has fundamentally altered the country's musical terrain, bringing many new and old artists to the fore.
Another powerful singer of mornas, Bana, hails like Évora from Mindelo on the island of São Vicente. A longtime member of Évora's touring band, Bau (born Rufino Almeida), is among the country's best makers and players of stringed instruments: guitar, violin and the high-pitched cavaquinho. Bau has released a beautiful album of his own compositions and arrangements, Inspiração. Simentera, a group of 10 musicians from Santiago, have also emerged as champions of Cape Verdean roots music.
Cape Verde has produced many dance-pop bands, updating the strongly African coladeira, funana, bandera and batuco rhythms. The oldest and best known of these groups, Os Tubarões, has performed for nearly three decades. A younger band with a growing international profile, Finaçon takes its name from the improvised chanting style that accompanies the batuco rhythm. Finaçon plays a Paris-preened roots style it calls funacolo. Based in the United States, João and Ramiro Mendes, the Mendes Brothers, have played a key role in creating, producing and promoting Cape Verdean music. They have released memorable titles on their MB label, and their own recordings may represent the most successful fusion of Cape Verdean and international styles yet to appear.
Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org