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The Music of Cesaria Evora

Mindelo looks different to us after that. What appeared before to be perfect blue vistas now seem to be marked with melancholy. In the water, a single windsurfer plies the waves, framed by arid peaks. The sun is shining, kids are playing in the market, men are killing the afternoon hours in cafés with cheap beer and 50-cent cheese sandwiches. Yet there are constant reminders of island isolation, of being surrounded on all sides by water with no place to escape to but the rocky beaches outside of town. That evening brings a different mood. After dinner at Restaurante Sodade (red snapper cooked in rich olive oil accompanied by rice and cabbage; a hunk of fresh goat cheese with candied papaya for dessert), Holley and I return to the hotel to rest. We've been told there will be a party in the praça tonight--but at 9:45, it's as empty as it was the morning we arrived. Then, on the dot of 10, a line of cars comes snaking around the square, horns honking madly. As if on cue, the praça fills with families, and a uniformed oompah band begins pumping out mornas from a little gazebo. There's no singer, but everyone knows the sad words, and gleefully sings along: "My heart is crying out/Full of pain/What can I do?/Where can I go/With this sadness?"

Kids dressed in their Sunday best dance with one another while their parents look on, clapping to the music. Teenagers blade around the square. Everyone knows everybody else, and they all want to know where we're from. By midnight, back in our room, with the band still playing away, we wonder whether they'll ever stop. It seems Mindelo's discos don't even get started until two. Holley laughs. "And you thought nobody has any fun in Cape Verde."

The next day we fly to Praia, Cape Verde's capital, on the island of São Tiago. As soon as we land we can feel the insistent beat of a city. Kids swarm around offering to carry our luggage, pop tunes blast through the P.A., and a line of taxis queue up for arriving passengers. Soon we are bumping along the cobblestoned streets--a legacy of the backbreaking days when the Portuguese ruled Cape Verde as a slave nation. We're en route to our hotel in the Prainha district, a leafy grid that is the picture of urban sophistication.

On a walk around town we stroll up the Avenida Amilcar Cabral, named for the poet and revolutionary who inspired Cape Verde's struggle for independence. Before the revolution, Cabral had started a literary movement, Claridade, that advocated cultural identification with Africa as a means of spreading nationalist ideals. Because Claridade found its strongest support in Praia, this is the most African city in Cape Verde. Here crioulu is spoken with the guttural emphasis of Senegalese Wolof; women carry fish and bananas on their heads in neon-colored baskets; and Praia's danceable, beat-driven funaná (played with a fiddle or accordion and a percussive iron bar) turns morna's melancholy on its head.

Not everyone, however, is so enamored of these African ties. At dinner with some Cape Verdean artists, I learn that a derogatory crioulu word exists to describe things that are "too African"--manjako. "There's an essential ambiguity about what it means to be Cape Verdean," says Mario Lucio Sousa, an elegantly dressed lawyer who makes his own neo-African clothes and is also the leader of the celebrated pop group Simentera. "When the Portuguese arrived, these islands were deserted, and the settlers populated them with slaves. They kept the best ones, the healthiest and brightest, for themselves. So from the beginning the population was a rainbow of colors. But the Portuguese forced us to give up our African traditions. For a long time, the Portuguese even banned crioulu." Morna, Sousa explains, was a revolutionary music--a way of embracing Cape Verde's mixed Creole identity, and a direct by-product of the Claridade movement.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, ON THE cobblestoned highway that cuts through São Tiago's interior to the coast, all the divergent elements of Cape Verdean life seem to knit themselves together before our eyes. Mountain towns like Assomada and Picos, ablaze with bougainvillea, dip into dark stone valleys, then give way to gardens of banana trees and lush vegetation. Burros plod along the roads and monkeys run through the forests chased by kids. Are we in Africa or South America?The mountains or the jungle?Cape Verde is becoming whatever we want it to be.

At the seaside town of Tarrafal, a wooden sign advertising scuba lessons flaps in the wind. This is the only place on São Tiago that feels like a holiday resort, though it was once the site of a Portuguese political prison. These days the only menaces are the red-faced spider monkeys that occasionally nip at careless tourists. We check into a new, state-run luxury hotel just a stone's throw from a cheap but charming bungalow colony where a few German tourists are sunbathing by some coconut trees on the sandy beach. Several of them have just arrived from Sal. Cape Verde, they say with protective smiles, is the best beach vacation they've ever had: unspoiled, unpretentious, full of musical treats. "I just hope no one reads your article," says one, turning his face back to the sun. "It's bad enough that Cesaria Evora is a big star now in America."


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