“You’ve arrived a day late,” said Khyra, the local singer we befriended outside a bar on our first night in Cape Verde. “Yesterday was the big night here in Praia.”
In the capital city of this West African island nation off the coast of Senegal, it appears that Friday is the Sunday of the weekend. When people here want to go out to hear some music, dance and drink grogue, the island’s potent sugarcane-based spirit, they do it on Thursday, or sextinha (little Friday, as it’s known locally).
Not being privy to the Thursday hoopla, my husband and I arrived in Praia on a Friday. With Khyra and a group of newfound friends, we landed at Serenata, a neighborhood bar in Achada Santo Antonio, a district that rises gently up from the Atlantic.
In Serenata’s courtyard, we took over a plastic table shaded by a large leafy tree. For what was supposed to be a low-key evening, things didn’t appear particularly quiet. On a small stage at the edge of the yard, a band played funan, upbeat music heavy on the accordion, the rhythm marked by the ferrinho, an instrument consisting of an iron bar scraped up and down with a metal object. The locals sang along. When a particularly groovy funan came on, a middle-aged couple got up to dance.
It could have been because of the grogue caipirinhas that I was dutifully downing out of tiny plastic cups, or the long first day of traipsing around Praia, or the sultry ocean breeze coming off the Atlantic. All I know is that on this first night in the remote archipelago we were about to delve into, my body swayed quite uncontrollably to the sound of funan. The crowd swayed around me. The night swayed, too.
Cape Verde first came to me through music. Many moons ago, I fell in love with the mournful songs of Cesria Évora, the “barefoot diva” who famously performed shoeless and pinned Cape Verde on the cultural map of the world. No matter how many times I hear Évora’s Sodade, sung in her warm, husky voice, it never fails to inspire an intense melancholy in me.
With her voice came visions of faraway islands out in the Atlantic, swept by strong winds and sorrows. I’ve often wondered what it was that made me respond so strongly to Évora’s celebrated mornas, the soulful ballads sung in the smoky bars of Cape Verde. Every time I heard her tunes, I felt a longing for something long lost, or something I never had.
It’s this feeling of bittersweet pining — saudade, or sodade, as it’s called in Cape Verdean Creole — that pervades Portuguese culture and that of its former colonies. The “queen of morna,” as Évora was also known, sang of love, loss, slavery and homesickness. Sailors from the islands would leave for long periods in search of better lives but dreamed of home and the women who waited for them back on shore. The women longed for their men at sea.
Yet there’s something serene and collected in these sorrowful mornas. I particularly love listening to them on long trips away from home. I find their syncopated sadness soothing. They somehow ease the discomfort of heading into the unknown. And so Évora’s sultry contralto has often provided the soundtrack to my journeys. After her, other music from the islands made its way into my collection over time. I’ve amassed so much of it that by the time I met my Angolan husband, he said: “You have more music from Africa than I do!”