By Terza S. Lima-Neves
For a relatively unknown small island nation in West Africa with a population of half a million people, Cape Verde enjoys a rich and lively music scene. This archipelago of ten islands and former Portuguese colony is a nation historically affected by drought and famine, leading to a very sizable global immigrant community. Many of Cape Verde’s musicians either live abroad or were born in countries such as Portugal or the United States, the host country of the largest community of Cape Verdeans outside of Cape Verde. Because of its mild weather year round, it plays host to numerous international music festivals that attract millions of tourists from all over the world.
Surely Cesaria Evora, known for her sultry, Billie Holiday-like voice, rings a bell for world music fans. The barefoot diva elevated this unknown country and its traditional music to the world stage. Cesaria made famous traditional styles of music like the morna and coladeira with her powerful voice, gaining fans worldwide, even those unfamiliar with Cesaria’s native language, Portuguese Crioulo. Lura, another artist gaining worldwide recognition, credits Cesaria for paving the way for younger Cape Verdean female traditional artists. Lura and other female musicians such as Mayra Andrade, Sara Tavares, Nancy Vieira, and Maria DeBarros, along with male artists such as Michel Montrond, Dani Santoz, Tcheka, Princezito, and Vadu, and bands like Ferro Gaita and Cordas do Sol have all taken Cape Verdean music to new heights.
In addition to morna and coladeira, traditional Cape Verdean music includes the styles of batuque, finacon and funana. Although Cesaria is likely the most widely recognized of Cape Verdean musicians, other artists such as Luis Morais, Ildo Lobo, Orlando Pantera, and Nacia Gomes have penned well-known lyrics that have become national symbols of the struggle for independence, the resilience of the people amidst adversity, and sodade, a deep nostalgic longing for loved ones lost through emigration or death.
As contemporary genres of music like zouk and kizomba become more popular among the youth and club-goers, however, there is concern that the country’s traditional music will become either less authentically Cape Verdean or just simply a thing of the past due to a perceived lack of interest in traditional music. Nevertheless, there is evidence that younger musicians committed to learning more about their cultural roots are showing increased interest in traditional Cape Verdean music. A recent national music competition similar to American Idol presented young artists who only performed traditional songs, and the nightlife for many young people in the cities of Mindelo and Praia includes stopping at local bars for drinks and live traditional music performed by new artists before continuing to trendier nightclubs.
Guelas, an internationally-known DJ of African music, believes in the exceptional talent of traditional artists like Mayra Andrade, Tcheka and Lura, but says he worries about a fan base that doesn’t show support for the music.
“At this moment, Cape Verdean… artists compete with Brazilian music, American music, house, techno, and others. Cape Verdeans in Cape Verde have access, via internet/TV, to so many choices of music that they’re forgetting their own. I have witnessed this first hand when in Cape Verde. Clubs won’t even play a lot of contemporary Cape Verdean music, never mind traditional. At the Cape Verdean Music Awards, a DJ was awarded the best DJ award for playing non-Cape Verdean music. If something isn’t done, the future of traditional Cape Verdean music doesn’t look so bright. There will be a disconnect from the younger generation of Cape Verdeans with their culture and some identity will be lost.” (Source: Written interview with DJ Guelas, 20 November 2012)
Cape Verdean American hip-hop artist Shokanti, however, is optimistic about the direction of the music in the hands of a new generation of traditional artists. He shares,
“This year a coladeira song was awarded song of the year during the Cape Verdean Music Awards. In a country where most of the population is young people, this is a clear sign that traditional music is far from diminishing. Just as oral tradition is passed on through generations, the fighting force behind the progression of Cape Verdean traditional music has been the descendants of musicians who choose to continue the legacy and traditions of their ancestors.” (Source: Written interview with Shokanti, 21 November 2012)
Shokanti also speaks of the critical role of education, saying that, “the future may be perilous if the government does not take the approach to institutionalize arts in the educational system. This will guarantee that the traditional music of Cape Verde will flourish in the future.”
There are hundreds of talented musicians, unknown to the world, who continue to play in the local music scene, hoping to be discovered by international talent scouts. It may be too early to predict whether or not Cape Verdean traditional music is destined for greatness in the hands of a younger generation. But it is safe to say that this developing African nation and its diaspora community continue to produce exceptionally talented musicians who bring joy to the ears of music fans throughout the world. As Cape Verdeans say, “our richest resources are our people and our music.”
Terza Lima-Neves is an assistant professor of political science at Johnson C Smith University. She is a lover of music and all things Cape Verde, and has written many articles for the Dictionary of African Biography, published by Oxford University Press and available online at the Oxford African American Studies Center. Follow her blog, Tizu’s Other’s World.
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