25 June 2009 - Conde Nast Traveler (US) - George Rush
How did a necklace of tiny islands far off the coast of Senegal seduce the world with its music? Inspired by Cesária Évora's sensuous, elegiac voice, George Rush makes a pilgrimage to Cape Verde and falls hard for a forgotten land of endless beaches, stark landscapes, and mesmerising rhythms.
"You will like Cape Verde," Cesária Évora had assured me, shortly before I was to leave for the country where she rules as musical empress. So why did I have this feeling of dread?
For years, I'd wanted to see the "forgotten islands," stranded 385 miles off the coast of Senegal. Ever since I'd first heard Cesária's smoky, cognac-ripened voice, the place names in her songs had become mythic for me: the beach at Salamansa, where "we three played in the sand"; the isle of Maio, "my secret world / to the left of my breast."
Cesária's music had opened my ears to other Cape Verdean artists: Bana, Rufino Almeida (a.k.a. Bau), Tito Paris, Paulino Vieira. I discovered that this overlooked archipelago—this smattering of ten islands and eight tiny islets—had produced enough elegant, elegiac music to rival its neglectful mother, Portugal, and its boisterous brother, Brazil.
"If you write to me / I will write to you," Cesária promised in another song. Accepting her challenge, I wrote. Or, rather, I e-mailed her publicist. Upon hearing that Cesária was coming to New York, I asked if the two of us might meet, which we did over lunch on the day she was to play Carnegie Hall.
Though her difficult life has been compared with that of Edith Piaf, this sparrow has more meat on her bones. Sixty-seven at the time, the Grammy winner wore a leopard-print scarf around her head, a dozen gold chains around her neck, and a ring on every burgundy- lacquered finger. Most remarkable, she wore shoes. "I feel more comfortable without them," admitted the Barefoot Diva, who, true to her name, showed up pieds nus onstage that night.
She grew impatient when I began poking into her love life. "At this point, I trust no man," said the never-married mother of two. But she was happy to talk about her beloved city of Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente. "The old Café Royal is closed, but there are other places where you can hear good music," she said, lighting up another Winston. She gave me the names of some bars. She even invited me to her house. "Call me when you get there," she said.
Cesária Évora—the woman who blew off Madonna's invitation to perform at her wedding—had invited me to her home! How could I not go, particularly since my August trip was to coincide with two music festivals?
The Cape Verde embassy steered me to a travel agency in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the city where Cape Verdeans have been settling since they began hopping on American whaling ships in the nineteenth century. Feeling a bit like Melville's Ishmael, I booked passage aboard a Cabo Verde Airlines Boeing 757 from Boston. Only half of the eighteen islands are inhabited; I aimed at sampling the six most visited islands in two weeks. But no sooner had I booked my internal flights than the airline changed its departure times. My precisely stitched itinerary seemed ready to unravel. I was also nagged by a statistic: More than half of Cape Verde's 429,000 citizens live outside the country. Why was I going if they'd all left? Why were they so besotted by sad songs, their mornas? I started wondering how much Zoloft to pack.
Yet watching the Cape Verdeans board the midnight plane from Beantown, I'd never seen such happy passengers. People who had come to the United States a decade before were giddy with anticipation that, in seven hours, they'd be home. It dawned on me that these people hadn't left Cape Verde because they'd wanted to but because they'd had to. During the twentieth century, it is estimated that droughts caused the death of some 200,000 islanders. No wonder so many mornas are about rain. Famine and unemployment have driven so many Cape Verdeans overseas that expats have their own representatives in the National Assembly.
These emigrants, who stoke the economy with remittances, have made Cape Verde a country without borders. Wherever they go, however successful they become, they feel sodade—variously translated as longing, nostalgia, or regret. Indeed, "Sodade," the title of Cesária's most famous song, has become a kind of national anthem.
Lately, the cause of so much heartache has brought some relief: Cape Verdean droughts have been known to last eighteen years—which sounds heavenly to sun-worshipping vacationers. The driest islands have become the most popular. I had been told that they offer never-ending beaches, world-class windsurfing, and diving among several centuries' worth of shipwrecks. Each island was said to have a distinct flavor. There was the promise of surfing, fishing, bird-watching, horseback riding, dune-bashing on ATVs, and trekking through misty forests. I'd heard you could climb a volcano and slide down the other side. I'd also heard that there was fast, sensuous music which, far from inducing tears, ignited dancers' loins.
This woeful little country seemed to be hiding a lot of fun.
I left home with a sheaf of ten paper tickets, arriving in the capital, Praia, on the big island of Santiago, early the next morning for my connecting flight to São Vicente. Hanging out in the airport's lone café, I could tell from all the dreadlocks and nose rings that I wasn't the only passenger headed for the Baía das Gatas music festival. I was killing time with the talent. When the announcement came that the flight would be delayed, they broke out their instruments.
At the center of the spontaneous lounge act was a caramel-skinned beauty with a blond Afro the radius of a mushroom cloud. "I'm Fantcha," she said, after I'd worked up the nerve to introduce myself. "Just Fantcha. I'm singing at the festival." She was born on São Vicente but now lives in Brooklyn.
"Cesária is like my second mother," she said. "When I was a girl, growing up in Mindelo, I sang with a Carnival troupe. Ti Goi, one of Cape Verde's great composers, introduced me to her. He said to Cesária, She reminds me of you when you were young.' And Cesária said, What do you mean when I was young? Can she sing?' So I sang one of Cesária's own songs for her. She liked it." View this article online »
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Please note that Cesaria Evora sadly passed away on 17 December 2011.