Songs of liberation from the forgotten islands of Cape Verde

The origins of my ancestry go back to Portugal and Africa; the colonizer and the colonized. I used to joke about it being one more contradiction in the endless list that make up my being. However, when I began to ask my mother about her side of the family I learned that they were not from the main land, but from the islands of Madeira and Cape Verde, which was formerly an African island, with a revolutionary history of struggles for liberation. My family was poor and immigrated to the central valley as farmers. I found the connections between my ancestors on both my mother and fathers side so fascinating. There is a shared history of being colonized, and colonial situations often produce an interesting exchange of culture that we see reflected in the arts. One example of this is in the music of Cape Verdian singer Cesaria Evora, who is also the subject of this post, and who I am happy to share ancestry with.

The Republic of Cape Verde is an island country off the coast of West Africa. They were ‘discovered’ and colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century, where the country became an important location in the international slave trade, and the main economic source within the country. When the slave trade declined in the 19th century the country went into economic crisis with the Portuguese doing little over the years to fix the situation, and refusing to give autonomy to the people, who inhabited the islands. This created a sense of anger amongst the people, who were already politicized by the colonial conditions. A revolutionary anti-colonial movement developed on the islands, led by Marxist, nationalist guerilla Amilcar Cabral, pictured above. Cabral was a military leader within the movement, setting up training camps to train other guerillas in military tactics to prepare for the insurrection to take back the islands as an African nation. He was a skilled military leader, as well as a poet, and an anti-colonial, revolutionary theoretician, who is as significant as Frantz Fanon. Cape Verde won their independence in 1975 becoming The Republic of Cape Verde. This revolutionary history provided the backdrop for the conditions that singer Cesaria Evora was raised in on the islands, and which is reflected in her music.

Cesaria Evora was born on August 27th, 1941 in Cape Verde. She is known for popularizing the Cape Verdian music, morna, internationally. Her career as a singer started off slow with her first album getting released in 1988, with little buzz from the music industry. Her music didn’t start gaining momentum until the 90’s, where her 1995 album, Cesaria, was nominated for a grammy and she begin to tour all around the world. She is an amazing singer, but she is more than just an international sensation; she is more than just a few songs on a putumayo cd compilation; she is an artist, whose music gives us a glimpse into a history that is often kept away from us.

There is a tradition of colonized peoples using the arts to spread messages of resistance. On the slave plantations here in the US, slaves used music to communicate to each other; in Brazil slaves developed capoeira, which was an art form that combined music and martial arts. It provided slaves with training to survive and fight their colonizers, and is seen as a symbol of resistance today. Morna is another example of art, and its connection to struggles for liberation. When we learn about these different art forms we also learn about their revolutionary history, and can preserve it as we build upon these radical political and cultural contributions to the international struggle for liberation. Morna is the official music of Cape Verde; much like ‘the fado’ is for Portugal or ‘the tango’ in Argentina. It is often likened to the american Blues, because of its sadness and somber tone. This makes sense, because the origins of the American blues, like morna, lie within African colonization and slavery. The music is a product of this violent and oppressive encounter between European and African cultures. There is a cool weekly radio series on African and World music called Afropop Worldwide. One of their writers wrote a beautiful introduction to morna and I wanted to share a quote from it that illustrates the historical roots to this musical art form,

“The Cape Verde archipelago is remote, barren, rocky and subject to drought. During some five centuries of Portuguese domination, the islands served as a distribution point for West African slaves. Cape Verdeans were prized as crew on wailing ships, one of many opportunities that would steadily spirit them away from their families and homeland, so that today at least half of all Cape Verdeans no longer live on the beautiful islands their ancestors called home. Separateness, longing, scarcity and bitter memories of both man’s and nature’s wrath—such is the stuff of Cape Verdean sodade and of the wistful poetry at the heart of the morna repertoire.”

Art produced by the oppressed is often conscious of the oppressive and exploitative conditions we live in. Its not just happy or solely for enjoyment. It says something. It moves people. This is how it should be. There are many ways to express revolutionary politics and being creative with it is so important. That doesn’t mean it needs to be somber or depressing all the time, but it is nice when art is intelligent and really says something that inspires and uplifts people. Cesaria Evora’s music does just that. Her voice is incredible and rich full of emotion reflecting those soulful and bluesy qualities. Her folk songs are backed by a violin, clarinet, guitar, and other tradition portuguese and Cape Verdian instruments. Her songs tell stories of her countries painful history of colonization and isolation, as well as liberation, which is seen in the celebratory song Angola, featured below. Angola is an upbeat song celebrating the Angolan people and their revolutionary struggles for liberation. Another piece of art that spreads messages of revolutionary history and struggles that we must not forget. Culture cannot be separated from the political. One of Karl Marx’s many theoretical contributions was showing the social aspects and implications of the material structures of society; our positioning within the division of labor carries social power and effects the way we relate to ourselves and each other. Capitalism has a corresponding culture that helps support it materially; culturally it is grounded in patriarchal individualism and selfishess that helps support a system that is based on the reproduction of itself, profit, and not the reproduction of its people who it must exploit to survive. This method of thinking is reflected in bourgeois culture and schooling that brainwashes us to believe it as truth. When people begin to develop an individualistic mindset then it becomes easy for them to ignore the exploitative truths of the world, while trying to hustle to get a piece of the pie that we falsely believe we can obtain, because our schools and government tell us so. They don’t preach the reality that as long as there is one class in charge (the bourgeoisie) they will need another divided class (the proletariat), which they can exploit and control in order to reap all the benefits for themselves. As we struggle with dreams of a different way of living, one that is grounded in the collective survival of all living things, we will also have a corresponding culture that helps support such a way of life, and this will also be reflected in the art we produce. Amilcar Cabral has a beautiful quote about the relationship between culture and politics,

“A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.”

Yes! Liberation is an act of culture. Very powerful point. While I let that one marinade please check out Cesaria Evora’s uplifting song Angola. Revolutionary history that makes you wanna shake it off..what could be better!


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