António Pinto and a photo of himself with his good friend, Cesária Évora
While in Portuguese training at FSI, I had the opportunity to interview António Pinto, a Cabo Verdean diplomat and musician here in Washington D.C. I was working on a thesis project about Cabo Verdean music and was lucky to interview someone with first-hand experience. And in Portuguese, no less!
It’s said that there are more musicians per square kilometer in Cabo Verde than in any other country in the world. And after having done this project, I don’t doubt it. Because it seems that all Cabo Verdeans simply live and breathe music. So without further ado, I present to you my thesis, “A Música em Cabo Verde.” (Psst: English translation below…)
A Música em Cabo Verde | Português
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The Music in Cabo Verde | English
The word “saudade,” is the only Portuguese word that does not have an exact translation in English. It expresses the deep emotional state of lacking a person or place that you love. This feeling is often found in the literature and art of Portuguese-speaking countries. And it is especially found in music. While Portugal has fado, the sad songs of lost love, today I’d like to talk about a smaller country, a country that dances with music, the country of mornas. Today, I’d like to talk about music in Cabo Verde.
Cabo Verde is an archipelago of ten islands. The country is only the size of Rhode Island and is 570 kilometers from the coast of Senegal. The islands were unpopulated until the 15th century, when they were discovered by the Portuguese. Cabo Verde soon became a commercial hub due the slave trade and whaling industry, but the islands were a Portuguese territory until 1975, when they became independent. Now, Cabo Verde is a vibrant, developed, and growing country with a unique blend of African and Portuguese cultures. And with a diaspora larger than the population of the islands, this culture has spread around the world. The most famous aspect of these islands? The music. The music that seems to live in the hearts of all Cabo Verdeans.
I had the opportunity to speak to António Pinto, a diplomat at the Embassy of Cabo Verde in Washington, DC, and a successful musician both in Cabo Verde and the United States. He has been singing since he was a child and it all began, as so many stories do, with a girl.
“I started singing when I was 10 or 16 years old in Cabo Verde. When a boy wanted to impress a girl, he would get a group of us together and we would sing serenades underneath her window. A group of us with a guitar and a violin. So I learned to sing in Cabo Verde when I was very young. Once I was out of the military, I continued to sing in Angola. I originally went to Angola to play soccer, but after Independence on April 25th, I started singing with an Angolan group. We went to Brazil for four months and then sang for six months in Cascais in Lisbon, a very famous neighborhood. In 1981, I started working for the Embassy of Cabo Verde here in D.C. and I continued to sing for Cabo Verdean communities in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Florida.”
The independence of Cabo Verde in 1975 changed everything. When Cabo Verde first gained independence, 60% of the population could not read and the country did not have a formal education system. But in only 40 years, this rate has declined to less than 12%. The country now has a formal education system and educational partners in the United States, China, and around the world. Music education on the islands is still informal, with private teachers, and many people learn about music like Antonio, with their friends. However, there is a growing trend towards formal music education. There are many primary schools with music lessons, and legislation published by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources, discusses Musical Expression as a facet of primary education. Due to a lack of resources such as teachers, instruments, and space, progress is slow, but progress does exist. However, sometimes it is possible to use the resources that are literally washed up on the beaches. According to a Cabo Verdean tall tale, in 1968, a shipwreck was discovered on the beaches of São Nicolau. The ship was filled with electronic organs and keyboards that were originally on their way to Rio de Janeiro. The government decided to donate these instruments to the country’s schools and suddenly, students from Cabo Verde had access to the latest electronic music technology. Was it this supposed twist of fate led to the development of Cabo Verde’s electronic music industry in the 1970s?
It was this sound and identity that modernized traditional music in Cabo Verde – and there were many strong traditions. For example, there is the coladeira, the cheerful music with joking themes of satire.
Then there is the funaná, the fast songs with an accordion base. These songs are sensual, fast, and tribal. So tribal, in fact, that the Portuguese colonists banned them on the islands of Cabo Verde.
Then there is the batuque, one of the oldest types of music in Cabo Verde. This genre developed when the colonists stole the drums from the slaves on the islands. A woman in the center of a circle creates a rhythm with a cloth sack.
And of course, there is the morna, the longing songs of a people with roots in the slave trade and who now face a widespread diaspora, who understand well the pain of being far from home. These songs are about pain and ruin. And we can not talk about the morna without mentioning Cesária Évora.
Cesária Évora was a Cabo Verdean singer who died in 2011. She was, without comparison, the most famous Cabo Verdean in the history of the country. She was the Queen of Morna and The Barefoot Diva because she performed barefoot as a tribute to her childhood, when she grew up without shoes. She came from a family of musicians, and began singing in local bars and on cruise ships when she was only 15 years old. But her career lasted for more than 50 years and her legacy will survive for much longer. She won many awards, including a Grammy, and received lifetime achievement awards from Cabo Verde, Portugal, and France. However, maybe she is best described by someone who knew her personally.
“I met Cesária when she was just singing in little bars in São Vincente. That’s where she started. And many times, in those bars, she would introduce me to perform. Then she went to Portugal where she met Jose da Silva, a Cabo Verdean entrepreneur who marketed her in Europe, where she had enormous luck. Then she came to the United States to sing and I was in charge of the backstage. I organized everything and was always with her, even in the limousine, everywhere. There were many events, including the Wolf Trap, where she sang.
In Cabo Verde, it was very difficult to visit her house. Lots of people visiting Cabo Verde wanted to visit her, but there were so many, that she couldn’t let them all in. But she said I could come any time and I used to go there a lot, even escorting people who wanted to meet her. Once, a girl came all the way from Norway to see Cesária perform at the Baia Festival. I told her that if she wanted, I could take her to Cesária’s house. I was busy with my family that day so I dropped her off at Cesaria’s at 11am. I came back to pick her up at 7pm and she was on the floor drunk! They had been drinking together and she just couldn’t keep up with Cesária!”
Cesária often performed in Cabo Verde and sang in Criolo, the country’s native tongue which is a mix of Portuguese and African languages. Her legacy still exists in the music festivals of Cabo Verde and every year, thousands of people from around the world travel to Cabo Verde to attend festivals like Baia das Gatas, the biggest festival in West Africa, and the Sal Music Festival. And why? Because the music in Cabo Verde is addictive. Cabo Verdeans have a clear passion for their country and their music.
“In all parts of the world, I think music is essential for the life of people. For both young and old. Because music transmits everything. And the music of Cabo Verde and the music of Africa – they have the flavor of jazz. When I perform, with my intent and with my style, I want people to understand my message. I want to transmit a point. Music is a remedy for people’s souls.”
It is said that there are more musicians per square kilometer in Cabo Verde than in any other country in the world. And perhaps this is because all Cabo Verdeans live and breathe music. Indeed, it is clear that there exists on these little islands, a culture that is much larger.