Cape Verde’s culture of recalcitrance

The island nation's celebrated political system was never a gift bestowed, but seized through sheer agency and hard-fought autonomy.

Palmeira, Sal, Cape Verde. Image credit Mal B via Flickr CC.

At a time of imperiled democracy, when the West can no longer brazenly declare illiberal ways “as peculiar to Asian and African peoples,” as Pankaj Mishra writes, or “on the despotic traditions of Russians or Chinese, on African tribalism, Islam, or the ‘Arab mind,’” it’s worthwhile to look back at the exemplary democratic transition of the West African nation of Cabo Verde, consistently ranked as one of the top countries in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and the musical foundations that underpinned its initial success and stably navigated the country to a new era.

In 1991, Cabo Verde had its first democratic election. Elections are tricky business anywhere, let alone in a state divided into several islands, each needing a tailored approach. Political parties found a novel solution, perhaps even a model, to successfully get their campaign messages out to large audiences with ears wide open: music festivals. Till today, Cabo Verde plays host to dozens of festivals a year, some government backed. The largest, the Atlantic Music Expo, is run by a relative of Cabo Verde’s first prime minister of the democratic era.

Winning votes involved tapping into a complicated national identity, and politicians across the spectrum channeled independence leader Amílcar Cabral’s belief that “even if in Cabo Verde, there was a majority white native population … Cape Verdeans would not stop being Africans.” Even conservative parties, more aligned with European interests, chose long shunned African rhythms and styles, especially Funaná—the raucous, percussive, accordion-driven music of the rural inlands, the music of the proud African interior—as the soundtrack for campaign rallies. It drew large crowds, engaged the youth, kept people content, and undoubtedly won votes.

But that sound, born from revolt and resistance, was hard-won. In 1910, the small village of Ribeirão Manuel, on the island of Santiago, led a rousing call for rebellion against colonial landlords.

“Homi faca, mudjer matxado, mosinhos tudo ta djunta pedra (men knives, women machetes, all children gather stones),” became an anthem of revolt. The episode is etched into the Cabo Verdean imagination as a defining historical event, yet it was preceded by periodic insurrections from all spaces on Santiago island, where lucrative, dehumanizing practices continued unabated.

The pristine beaches and luxury resorts dotting the 10-island chain belie a harsher reality. A hive of volcanoes and cyclical droughts and famines—exacerbated by Portugal’s transformation of the colony into a cash crop economy of water-heavy maize and cotton production—form a harsh ecology that have plagued Cabo Verde. “Resistance in the context of periodic droughts and famines,” writes Peter Karibe Mendy in his biography of Amílcar Cabral, “has been a salient feature in the history of Cabo Verde … embedded in the various facets of Cabo Verdean culture.”

Santiago Island was the bleeding heart of a culture of recalcitrance, the Badius its fiercest ambassadors, resisting what C.L.R. James called the “special violence of slave-owners and the ardent temperament of the tropics.” Descendants of Cabo Verde’s own maroons who carved out a more dignified life in the virtually inaccessible mountainous hinterlands of the island’s north, Badius refused to abandon control of their bodies or labor. Deep inside Santiago’s interior, free from the fangs of European supremacist rule, Badiu culture maintained and built upon its distinctly African nature. Their music, Funaná, grew in almost total isolation.

In the 1950s, as Badius scraped together a difficult living in a baron economy, a number of young men “went South,” a common worker’s journey from Santiago to São Tomé off the coast of Gabon, 2,300 miles away and rife with malaria, to meet demand for labor on cocoa plantations. Among them was a 17-year-old Bitori Nha Bibinha, who falsified a birth certificate to travel. But he made the arduous journey not to earn money or send remittances home.

“I enrolled to go to São Tomé,” Bitori told scholar Rui Cidra in a 2003 interview, “just to get an accordion.”

“I said that as soon as I got an accordion I would return. As a punishment, I endured three years and six months to buy a return ticket! I suffered, boy.”

São Tomé’s more profitable cocoa economy had created a petite bourgeoisie. Luxury goods like a button diatonic accordion were imported and stocked in abundance. With no electricity in the small villages of Santiago, an acoustic instrument was key.

One by one, as the likes of Bitori returned to Santiago Island, they became adept, self-taught musicians whose accordions were tuned in ways only possible on the island. A contemporary accordion-maker or technician would have a hard time navigating the guts of the Badiu gaita.

In their home villages, by the ‘60s and ‘70s, Badiu gaita players became masters in their own right, grand elderly statesmen of the Funaná sound, played with lackadaisical harmonies amid circling congregations of women adorning white robes not dissimilar to the practices of Brazilian Candomblé. A ferrinho player scrapes a disheveled iron rod resting on his shoulder with a blade. Funaná derives from a great accordionist, Funa, and ferrinho percussionist, Nana. The gaita became the maximum expression of Badiu identity.

Gaita players achieved a status similar to the line of West African Griots, repositories of history transmitted through the songs of Funaná, its lyrics spoke of the trials of daily scarcity or playfully incorporated whole metaphors. The classic song “Nha Boi” translates as “My Bull.” To be trusted with a bull is to become a man, and a respected member of one’s village. Bulls are used to crush sugarcane to make grogu, the moonshine, a sibling of Colombian aguardiente, copiously washed down at Funaná parties. But “Nha Boi” is simply a metaphor for reaching manhood (a bull) through sex (crushing sugarcane).

Funaná remained exclusively a Badiu affair, the gruff screams of its singers and the bubbling Badiu accent certify authenticity. And since Portugal vacated its African colonies only in 1975, Funaná’s exposure was delayed. Portugal’s colonial secret police kept a close eye on Funaná traditions and parties because of its sensuality, but they “had nothing against the music of Funaná itself,” Bitori told me, “they just didn’t like to have congregations of several people,” given the long history of well-organized rebellions. Even with 8pm curfews, Funaná parties continued, leading to fines and arrest. Playing even a few notes on the gaita under the stars became a small but powerful dissenting act.

Funaná’s ascension into mainstream culture was propelled by independence and elections, but professional production and recording remained elusive. The masters were limited to an elite but small class of elderly men from the interior.

Younger artists, like Orlando Pantera, empowered by the politically backed proliferation of Funaná in the early ‘90s, began traveling inland to learn the trade secrets from the gaita griots, taking up the rural artform to counter what they saw as global pop sounds diluting the vast majority Cabo Verdean output and preventing genuine local music from competing on the airwaves. Another revolt was afoot.

“It was a reaction to some of the music that was entering Cabo Verde,” said Pantera’s daughter Darlene, “like the Zouk style from the Caribbean and also the influx of hip-hop.”

“They wanted to go back to the roots to see what was their role, what was their typical Cape Verdean way.”

In 1997, an “earthquake shook the country,” a Cabo Verdean newspaper wrote, when a group of youths, calling themselves Ferro Gaita, “dared to make a disc based on the gaita, ferrinho and bass guitar.” That best-selling first album—selling 40,000 copies in a country of just 400,000—changed the entire trajectory of the country’s music.

“I searched the interior of Santiago,” said Iduino, the band’s bass player, in the same piece, “which was harassed and had too many difficulties, and the compositions speak about the reality and culture in this part of Cabo Verde.”

Ferro Gaita’s success caught the attention of the more affluent producers based in Cabo Verde’s large European diaspora, namely Rotterdam. At the height of the CD era, Rotterdam’s Cabo Verdean music scene was selling upwards of 80,000 copies of mainstream electronic Krioulu pop. Healthy profits allowed for greater risks with more traditional Funaná.

“Together with democracy,” said producer Vada Semedo, “came a lot of business opportunities.”

The widespread sentiment amongst producers was to honor old masters of the gaitas from the small villages by publishing releases for the very first time, to give what was once hidden a bigger stage. Semedo chose the late Tchota Suari, held alongside Bitori as the greatest of all time. “I fell in love with his way of playing,” said Semedo, “because I had a memory of my youth in Cabo Verde of hearing the gaita, but not like he did.”

“This guy could use the whole accordion: in one song he uses all the notes.”

Curiously, Funaná was captured, packaged, and sold at the peak of Cesaria Evora’s worldwide fame when Cabo Verde was well established on the music map, yet recordings like Semedo’s never shared the same success or global acclaim. In a way, Semedo said, Funaná was never ear-marked to go global. Just the journey from the interior to Cabo Verde’s cities was seen as a great achievement because the rural heartlands viewed cities as parasitic, where nothing is produced, only consumed. The song “Nha Boi” quips that the bulls of Praia, urban bulls, exist only for sale as a steak.

The challenges of getting the very best gaita players from the inland, accessible today only by long winding roads and long hours of travel, and securing visas to record at studios overseas kept Funaná a cry in the middle of the Atlantic, with anticipated fanfare in Cabo Verde’s Lusophone siblings, Angola and Mozambique only.

The isolationist Badiu disposition stood firm. Funaná for years remained a well-kept secret, a subculture to coexist parallel but incognito from Evora’s global brand—until the late 1990s, when, thanks to a fateful election and intrepid music entrepreneurs, the masters finally got their chance in recording studios.

Ferro Gaita’s Iduino predicted in 2004 that Funaná and all its masters “will be known one day worldwide.”

Prophetically, their story and impact are known today. And perhaps the most poignant lesson from Cabo Verde’s maiden election and the revolutionary inclinations of its accompanying music is that, for all the chest-beating of the world’s supposed bastions of liberal democracy, this dogmatically celebrated political system was never a gift bestowed, but seized through sheer agency and hard-fought autonomy. The Badius of northern Santiago personify a naturally democratic way of life and their most cherished Funaná pioneers legitimized one of the most successful post-colonial political transitions in one of the youngest countries, an election that gave a grand spotlight to the most marginalized and once deliberately silenced.

With defining elections scheduled around the world, the small handful of candidates and parties with a modicum of decency would do well to follow the Cabo Verdean example, tapping into the stories, values, and culture of their society’s own Badius to cement a more dignified future.

Further Reading

A handbook for revolution

My first encounter with Basil Davidson was in an undergraduate seminar with the Pan-Africanist scholar Pearl Robinson. Resolute in my belief that a colonial-era British secret service (MI6) agent could hardly offer a worthwhile account of post-colonial African life, I was quickly disavowed …