CAPE VERDE: SAUDADE IN SAO VICENTE

INTELLIGENT TRAVELLER Music is embedded in the very DNA of Sao Vicente; a fact that becomes rampantly clear in the run up to carnival.  Its capital, Mindelo, positively thrums each weekend between Christmas and Lent as rival teams devote themselves to outdoing their neighbours with drum practise.

Rio and even our very own Notting Hill have made carnival into big business – Mindelo, meanwhile, does carnival on a budget.  Scraps of wasteland are cordoned off with makeshift walls made from oil drums that have been hammered flat.  Behind the barricades, teams of volunteers live and sleep on site and construct their floats for little or no money.  Ingenious Heath-Robinson-esque skeletons are cobbled together from junk metal in readiness for papier-mâché and cardboard skins.  These are master classes of invention, testimony to the creative power of corrugated cardboard, flour, water and an oxyacetylene torch.

Competition, although friendly on the surface, belies the fierce will to win.  This is serious business no matter that resources are scant – as is the preparation for carnival practised by groups called Mandinga.  Each Sunday competing teams parade around the town, blacked up with sump oil and dressed in a motley selection of tarry cast-offs.  Training, in effect, for the big day.

Their presence is ethereal to begin with; the constant beat of their drums is ever present; yet they might as well be invisible.  The sound tantalisingly reflects from handsome colonial facades girdled with cast iron balconies, east one moment, then echoing up from a weathered street to the south next.  The spectral presence of Mandinga eventually reveals itself in a heady orgy of Afrodrag.  Voo-doo-ed desperados ululating and drumming, fill the air with palpable excitement.  Cod masked paramilitary, garbed in fatigues, throw victims against the wall to suggestively frisk with batons.  They elicit shrieks of laughter between the constant explosions detonated from their faux bazookas.  The core group of fifty surreptitiously expands to some five hundred by the time they reach the new builds at the edge of the city; only to mysteriously contract again.

Credit-crunch creativity abounds.  One boy brandishes an old phone as an instrument to beat – before throwing a shape and making a theatrically bogus call to nowhere.  Shrunken human heads adorn sticks, giving reason to suspect there’s a job-lot of decapitated dolls abandoned somewhere on the island.  Ghoulish male brides walk beside emaciated tattered grooms in grotesque marriage ceremonies that owe more than a passing nod to the day of the dead.  Black rag-work coats cocoon their wearers, making them look like imagined creatures from a bestiary; part human, part dishevelled hyena, rare and marvellous.

Continuous drumming is trance-inducing and resounds across Mindelo all night long.  During the day the beat is occasionally punctured by another instrument: the syncopated tooting of someone practising a trumpet voluntary in the municipal music rooms.

Rhythm is everything on this island, as evidenced by the extraordinarily rich culture epitomised by Cape Verde’s national music: morna and coladeira.  Morna is doleful, haunting and enigmatic with themes of love, loss and an intense sense of home and home-coming.  In contrast, coladeira is altogether more ribald dealing with work, society and the day-to-day.  Rumbas and sambas are omnipotent.  These uniquely creole art-forms were born from various influences, but primarily through a three-way dialogue between Portugal, Africa and Brazil – in other words they exist because of slavery (which finished as late as 1876).

Of course nowadays it’s impossible to escape the influential reach of rap and other contemporary global genres.  And these have made their presence felt on Sao Vicente too.  Just as they should; all art forms need to evolve and develop.  But the honesty, pride and deep affection attached to the traditional sound of the island is tangible.  There is nothing generic about the musicianship here, nothing that isn’t creative and identifiably Sao Vicente’s very own, and both morna and coladeira flourish.

If Sao Vicente is proud of its music, it’s fit to burst when it comes to the practitioners of morna and coladeira.  The late great singers Cesaria Evora and Banna were both children of the island, and to some degree their continuing presence is impossible to escape from.

When Cesaria died last December the entire island paid their respects, climbing onto rooftops, singing her songs and applauding as her funeral cortege passed by – a fitting send-off for the legendary Barefoot Diva.  Her spirit still pricks the blue/green air in the small bars that line Rua Santa Antonio; a dark slip of cobbled alley in the oldest part of town.  Catches of her remarkable voice tremble from transistors; disembodied yet absolutely enmeshed in the fabric and psyche of the place.  The woman and the island are inseparable; they are one and the same.

At the other end of town – and financial spectrum – the Porto Grande hotel hosts musical evenings every Saturday night.  Chairs shrouded in muslin and red ribbons look set for a wedding.  But far from being an up-market tourist-trap, locals out-number the visitors and mouth the words to favourite bossa novas between sips from their caipirinhas.

Maybe this is Mindelo’s musical secret.  The place feels inclusive, honest, true to its roots – and the music, whether it’s morna, coladeira or a comparatively recent import is for everyone.  This is, after all, music by the people for the people, to listen to in the street or in a bar.  And the intoxicating excitement generated around the preparation for carnival couldn’t be a better example.

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