8 mins

Songs of freedom: exploring the Cape Verde islands

African food, Latin American music and European influences fuse in these sun-soaked, volcanic isles in the mid-Atlantic

"It was for moments like this that I had gone to Cape Verde" (IDS.photos)

Stray, haunting notes from a four-stringed ukulele-like cavaquinhos rippled across the smoky, sultry club as we waited for Chandinha to sing. She had red cheeks and flowing black hair, and was swaying gently on a low stage with her head back, eyes closed and hands clasped in front of her dress.

Suddenly her lips parted, releasing a soaring wail, a cry of the purest grief: “Ayeee…”. One or two voices in the audience echoed the sound, as if to spur on the morna – the tragic folk poems of the islands. The musicians started to strum their instruments to a slow, simple rhythm, and Chandinha’s sad, soulful voice flooded the room. She sang of pain, of unrequited love, betrayal, separation across the sea, of sodade – the melancholy longing for things out of reach. A tear trickled to a stop on her puckered face.

The lyrics were in the Portuguese-based Creole of São Vicente island, but the sensual, soul-stirring emotions they carried were in a realm beyond translation – even to an ear as untutored as mine. On the long notes even the table-top candles seemed to sway and swoon as hairs bristled on the back of my neck.

It was for moments like this that I had gone to Cape Verde.

Lost at sea

These volcanic islands adrift in the vast emptiness of the Atlantic had never been inhabited when Portuguese adventurers first chanced on them in the 1450s. I could understand the reason as my plane banked over baked, featureless Sal which, because of its flatness, houses the islands’ main airport.

Less immediately obvious is why so few visitors venture any further. Winter-sun seekers in increasing numbers are jetting to the golden sands around Sal. And now British travellers, who have been slow to make it to their closest tropical island, are expected to head south as the first direct flights start in November [2008].

But why remain on Sal when other islands in the archipelago offer scenes of elemental high drama – sweeping mountain ranges, canyons and ravines, mist-clad volcanoes, and vibrant towns pulsing with the music and colours of cultures fused from West Africa, Europe and Brazil? I wanted to get beyond the beachy package and explore the even less-visited corners of Cape Verde.

Sharing airspace with fork-tailed frigate birds, I flew first to far-flung São Vicente, a dead volcano tip as parched as Sal but crumpled into hills and valleys like a screwed-up brown envelope. In the 19th century British merchants dismissed it as a ‘cinder heap’, but discovered that the sweeping curve of a half-submerged crater formed the natural deep-water mid-Atlantic harbour they needed as lords of the shipping lanes to South America and the West Indies.

Coal was shipped from Cardiff, and Cape Verde’s only British community took root in Mindelo, which became an international crossing point and milieu of cultural blending. There is a very odd, originally British, golf course just outside town, straddling a litter-blown landfill site. “Grass won’t grow, but we have 16 ‘browns’,” laughed Liston Amodor the local ‘pro’. Where the other two holes had gone, he couldn’t say. Even more bizarrely, a contorted version of cricket is still played as part of the annual carnival celebrations.

I found some surviving trappings of this trading era in the grand pink Presidential Palace, once the Portuguese governor’s residence, and the now-fading Georgian-fronted houses (built for British merchants) on cute, cobbled streets around the old port. I immediately felt much more in Europe than Africa, stopping at the Café Lisboa for a Portuguese pastry before popping into the side-street workshop of guitar-maker Aniceto Gomes whose clients, he proudly informed me, include The Gipsy Kings.

Mindelo seems to celebrate its Latin way of life and its role as cultural capital of the country. I loved it as a place to meander about and pick up the ever-present strains of music from bars and shops. To the melodies of the accordion I sat down to lunch; a spread of the fruits of lush ‘sister island’ Santo Antão (nothing much grows on São Vicente). This hearty meal, called cachupa – a cassoulet-like dish of maize, beans, bananas, cassava, squash and sweet potatoes – is the islands’ national dish.

I had already been introduced to a cachupa feast as a guest in the home of local couple Chandinha (whose voice later moved me so deeply) and her guitar-accompanying husband Russo. Between practise sessions for the evening gig, they explained how originally this was food cooked by and for slaves (poor man’s cachupa), but is now embellished with chicken, pork and blood sausage (rich man’s cachupa). 

Cachupa is to nouvelle cuisine what Mike Tyson is to a sleeping baby. I was served a copious plateful by Chandinha, as Russo poured slugs of grogue (raw sugarcane firewater), and ponche (the same, with honey added). The latter, I decided, would be ambrosia for cognoscenti of cough mixture.

Russo told me the drinks’ names had found their way into Creole from the English words grog and punch. Similarly with the commands chatope (shut up) and ariope (hurry up), bossomane (boss man) and xuingom (chewing gum). My personal etymological discovery, was hearing of a snack referred to as a viva klokti – surely from ‘five o’clock tea’?

I speak reasonable Portuguese, the Cape Verdean national language, and had assumed this would open doors for me. Up to a point it did, but an attempt at the local Creole (which differs markedly from island to island) opened more. If, say, a honky goes to Montego Bay and tries on some Jamaica speak, he is likely to be laughed outta town. But here it is taken as a deep compliment if you greet people with a “Tudu dretu?” (“Everything OK?”) or, better still, learn a stanza or two of a morna song, so you can sing along in the clubs.

Russo proved to be a quietly spoken expert on the origins of morna, and he told me of the sorrowful poems’ history: “In times of slavery the Portuguese banned drums, because they thought they communicated ‘subversive’ messages.”

Island Africa

If São Vicente resonates with Latin vibes, then it is the flavours of Africa that come to the fore on Santiago. While Mindelo rejoices in its flourishing cultural scene, Praia is the intellectual and political hub. Here visitors cannot avoid coming face to face with history and the unspeakable cruelty of slavery and brutal colonialism, still within living memory of the middle-aged. The old harbour of Ribeira Grande (now Cidade Velha) with its stone pelourinho, a whipping post outside the cathedral where captives were shackled for beating or pre-sale display, is an unsettling sight.

Still, I found Praia’s central market rocking to unmistakably African vibes, amid zestful bartering. There were pungent smells of fish, spices and mangoes. Portuguese red wine – rough stuff from the former motherland – was sold in five-litre flagons. One woman had an enormous tray of yams improbably balanced on her head, while another was wearing pink-tinted sunglasses and selling cloth woven into alluring patterns.

The music thumping from the oversized speakers was miles from the mournful strains of morna. Instead, I was surprised to pick up an eclectic mix of Western pop, home-grown zouk and Caribbean ragamuffin. One young dude with dreadlocks asked where I was from as we snapped fingers West African-style. “One love, man,” he grinned.

Entranced as I was by the erotic dance moves and hypnotic drumming that go with Cape Verde’s soundtrack, I could sort of see why it was distrusted as ‘potentially subversive’ by the colonial authorities.
After the rhythmic thumping of Praia, the lush innards of Santiago island – the archipelago’s largest – seemed a world away.

I snaked up among mountains terraced into tiny plots of maize and sugarcane, and across a wild plateau flushed green by recent rains. Against a jagged backdrop of exploded and collapsed crater cones, I stopped for lunch at a cliff-top village overlooking an enchanted cove where fishermen were hauling in a bountiful catch. Do you count your food miles? Well here it was a question of food feet, as I tucked into grilled grouper and butternut squash.

Land of miracles

But it couldn’t last – all too soon I was back on Sal preparing for my flight home. But before I left I decided to see if there was more to the island – which is really just an Atlantic-set extension of the Sahara – than beaches.

From the main tourist beach at Santa Maria in the south, I headed north in a 4WD along the bumpy, dead-straight track that slices through this bare island of sand and rock. Lakes shimmered in the distance, but evaporated into the ether as suddenly as they had appeared. Then a lonesome village materialised on the horizon, where scorched white merged with hazy blue.

As my eyes scanned its cubes of ochre and clumps of scrubby shrubs, parts of the picture seemed to vanish then dance back into focus. My senses could just about assimilate this much, but when the huts left their cluster to re-group in a long, shimmering train, it was just too much.

“Ah, you see the miraglo,” said Corrina, my guide, using a Creole word meaning both ‘miracle’ in the religious sense, and ‘mirage’. A desert mirage is in a league with the aurora borealis or Saturn’s rings: you believe in their existence, but not until you have experienced them can you have any idea of their bewitching reality.

And there was more wonder to come. At the end of the road we reached a collapsed volcano with a tunnel cut through the crater wall, leading to an eerie, empty expanse of rust-coloured pools blistered with drifts of wind-blown salt. Natural subterranean tunnels connect with the sea, allowing the water to rise, then periodically drain leaving crusty deposits in the crater.

It was to harvest this salt that the first slaves were brought to Sal, and their descendants were still toiling in the searing sun when the Portuguese left 30 years ago.

“Memories of misery and oppression are still very close to the surface, so it is hard for local people to comprehend that such a unique geographic phenomenon as this could be an attraction, and the waters a source of natural well-being,” explained Corrina as I stripped off to wade into red-tinged water 6% saltier than the Dead Sea.

This was something to ponder as I floated on my back, magazine in hand, quietly poaching as I listened to the liquid cry of black-winged stilts echoing off the crater wall.

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