CAPE VERDE: MELODY MAKER

GUARDIAN After a swift glass of grog Chico was only too happy to chat.  “Of course I knew Cesaria Evora” he said.  “I played with her on a tour of the United States; hey, she was first discovered singing at my piano!”  It soon became apparent that there were many in Mindelo who’d known perhaps the greatest exponent of morna there ever was.

Morna is the national music of Cape Verde and Cesaria was the undisputed queen of the art form until her death in December last year.  The haunting, doleful melodies are creole – a fusion of Portuguese, African, Brazilian and Cuban influences – which some say are reminiscent of the Blues.  To my ears morna sounds more poignant and refined.  But what’s indisputable is the place in which to find the true spirit of this music: Sao Vicente’s capital, Mindelo.

Getting to Sao Vicente is something of a moveable feast; flights from the tourist hub Sal are beholden to sand storms blowing in from the Sahara or dependent on the vagaries of the small domestic airline.  But no matter, the short hop’s easily worth it.  Mindelo’s a pretty place strewn with tropical, sun-bleached colonial buildings girdled with cast iron balconies – the last remnants of Portuguese rule.  And although tourism is gradually becoming a significant earner for the local economy this is still a working town with an active port and small fishing fleet.

After work fishermen head for the bars at the far end of Rua Santa Antonio; a dark slip of cobbled alley and the oldest part of town.  But don’t be put off by the lack of street lamps; it’s a friendly place.  The simple local pubs radiate a dim ghostly blue/green light onto the street and knock out decent beer for pennies.  Grog, the local rum, is an altogether different kind of knock-out.  Believe me.

You’ll find Pica Pau here too: a tiny, bare-boarded café with a big reputation – as evidenced by the hundreds of thank-you letters Sellotaped to the walls.  They flap languidly under the swish-swash of the ceiling fan – forming a surreal fluttering multinational tribute to the excellent quality of their prawns and lobster.  I particularly liked the fish soup, loaded with dry bread.

Leaving a mark of some kind to celebrate your visit seems to be the done thing in these parts.  Clube Nautica, a chilled-out open-air bar by the marina is draped with flags donated by previous guests.  I assume they were left by passing sailors as I’ve never been predisposed to pack an ensign when I go away.  Or is that just me?  Whatever, Clube Nautica also hosts musicians.  On my first night in Mindelo I drifted into the bar and immediately struck lucky; a lone musician began singing a hypnotic morna as he strummed a twangling twelve-string guitar.  He had the half-dozen drinkers transfixed.  Just be sure to leave a few bank notes of appreciation in his hat as you leave.

Music permeates every corner of Mindelo.  Even my hotel, the Porto Grande, is a regular venue for bands.  Saturday night jam sessions kick off at eleven-ish and attract more locals than tourists.  Salsa, bossa nova and coladeira (another Cape Verdean style of song, but a little more ribald than morna) are all favourites.  Khaly, the young pianist playing the night I visited, was Cesaria’s very last keyboard player.  He seemed pleased to reminisce.

“She never remembered my name; she called me piano boy,” said Khaly, and for a brief moment I thought he might sob.  He added “she’s a queen; I always hear her, I hear her music on the radio, it’s in my head.”  I’d suggest it was in his DNA.

At two AM I headed off for bed – and quickly learnt Mindelo, unlike other towns, doesn’t have a pulse; it positively throbs.  I fell asleep to the evocative sound of drums echoing around the streets in preparation for a forthcoming carnival.  It felt like I might be the only person going to sleep.

The small airy museum across the square from Porto Grande has an eclectic collection of local crafts, including a lovely workbench that has its long history gouged into its surface with thousands of knife marks.  It originally belonged to Mestre Baptista, a master guitar maker based in Mindelo.  His son Luis still makes instruments today.

If you have a need for a new guitar then this is your man.  Of course he’s made instruments used by Cesaria’s musicians.  Then, as if to order, a couple of his many brothers showed up (yep, they played for the legend too) with their friend Edson, a vocalist.  And for the next hour I had my own private impromptu concert in the basement of a little house in the outskirts of town.  Mindelo is like that.

The amount of art and culture packed into Mindelo is impressive – there’s no British equivalent.  Back by the marina is a gallery exhibiting the work of Cape Verdean artists.  It’s also got a great bookshop and café – and was yet another hangout for the artistic community; I met actors there planning performances for later in the year.  Plans are also afoot for the Baia das Gatas music festival next August.  Now in its 28th year it attracts the very best of local talent as well as international names.

But immediately around the corner from the marina on Rua de Libertad d’Africa was my favourite pub, Bar Lisboa.  It’s something of an intellectual’s haunt, tiny, atmospheric, and the purveyor of excellent caipirinhas and bar snacks.  It was here that I met Chico and talked about his days on the road with Cesaria.

I’ve loved her music for many years, but in that little bar on a hot Tuesday evening I began to understand something more of the Barefoot Diva.  Cape Verde and the woman are one and the same; and Mindelo – small, passionate, bursting with life – is the best place to find her legacy.

Chico put it simply, he said “our music has power” and I believe him.

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