When Évora died in December 2011, Cape Verde declared two days of national mourning. The islands wept, and I mourned at not having seen the barefoot diva perform live. So when I got an offer to spend three weeks on the islands researching a guidebook, it was the music that lured me to accept.
And so it was that we wound up at Serenata our first night on Santiago, the largest of 10 islands in the arrow-shaped Cape Verdean archipelago. Here began the musical odyssey that would take us to eight of the nine inhabited islands.
But it wasn’t just the music that wowed us on these isolated flyspecks poking out of the ocean, whipped by Saharan trade winds and surrounded by stormy Atlantic seas. They pack a punch panorama-wise, too, with their dreamlike valleys, mighty canyons, indigo-blue seas, wispy white dunes and virgin beaches. But it was the morabeza, the hospitality and warmth of the Cape Verdean people, and the music that most seduced us.
On Fogo, a dramatic island known for the giant cinder-clad volcano that rises out of an ancient crater, we hired a driver for the day. At 5:30 a.m., before daybreak, a red pickup arrived outside our guesthouse. A light-skinned man came out and introduced himself as Albino. Albino would take us to the conical — and still active — Pico do Fogo, which we would climb. (Little did we know that we were in for the scariest descent of our lives, down a steep, nearly vertical wall of loose volcanic rock.)
Back down in Cha das Caldeiras, the crater with a pair of pretty villages perched inside it, we met up with Albino again. On the drive back toward the island’s capital, Sao Filipe, we chatted about the famed Arabica coffee grown on terraced hillsides on the island’s eastern side, near the town of Mosteiros. We talked about life on the islands, and the hardship that comes with their isolation. Albino told us that he’d given the United States a try and spent some time in Massachusetts, where most of America’s Cape Verdean community lives, because of the whaling ships that brought them over in the early 19th century. But he’d missed home too much and came back to Cape Verde.
When our chat came to music, as it naturally does in Cape Verde, Albino mentioned that he was related to the Mendes Brothers, whose song Cor Di Rosa is one of my all-time favorites. From Albino, I learned that the song I love so dearly, with its subtly sad syncopated tune, is talaia baxu, a violin-heavy music genre native to Fogo and focused on rabeas (violins) and the ukulele-like cavaquinhos.
A couple of days later, in the middle of humming Cor Di Rosa, my husband suddenly exclaimed: “I finally get the lyrics: Nos distino e Djarfogu/ du ka ta trocal/ ku nada des mundo: Our life on Fogo Island, we wouldn’t change for anything in the world.” There was something so satisfying about finally understanding the emotional weight of a song you’ve loved for years without understanding its lyrics.
A few days later, my birthday found us in Mediterranean-flavored Mindelo, the urban star of Sao Vicente island and Cape Verde’s unofficial cultural capital. We’d connected with a friend of my husband’s from Lisbon who now lives in Mindelo and had ended up with her crew in a word-of-mouth pizzeria run by a Neapolitan man in the basement of his home in a sketchy part of town. It was one of those nights.