An Atlantic Archipelago’s Main Export: Music

The Cape Verdean hip-hop artist Helio Batalha performing on the main stage of the Atlantic Music Expo in Praia. Credit Alexander Manykin/Ame


Some countries have oil, diamonds or cocoa beans. Cape Verde, a tiny archipelago about 385 miles off the west coast of Senegal, has music, and it is betting on that resource to help bolster its fragile economy.

This month, music promoters and producers from the United States, Europe and some African nations landed in Praia, the country’s capital, for the Atlantic Music Expo, a four-day talent showcase that the government bills as a “music professionals meeting.” They attended seminars, networked and hopped from one stage to another, joining crowds of giggling teenagers, dancing elders and excited children to watch aspiring local and international singers.

The Atlantic expo, which ran from April 11-14, was followed by the privately sponsored Kriol Jazz Festival, now in its eighth year, which promotes creole-inspired island music.

“It’s essential to see people perform live before you book them, and there is nothing better than experiencing a music culture where it’s actually from,” said Paula Abreu, the director of programming for SummerStage, an annual New York City music festival. “You immediately know if an artist has what it takes to entertain a public of thousands.”

Ms. Abreu booked the musicians Mayra Andrade, Dino D’Santiago and the Cesária Évora Orchestra for last year’s SummerStage after seeing them at the Atlantic expo.

The model for many Cape Verdean artists is the international star Cesária Évora, who put Cape Verde on the map of the music world with her renditions of mornas, the islands’ ballads of love and longing.

“Here, from the rural areas to the breezy beach towns, everyone sings and has a beautiful voice,” said José Da Silva, who developed the Kriol festival and is the producer of the Atlantic Music Expo. “What matters is who works hard enough to be discovered.”

Mr. Da Silva, a music producer who helped to relaunch the career of Ms. Évora in the 1980s, worked with the Cape Verde Ministry of Culture to create the Atlantic Music Expo, now in its fourth year. This year, the government spent about $227,000 to finance the expo, which also had corporate sponsors.

The folk singer Cesaria Évora performing in Lublin, Poland in 2011. Credit Wojciech Pacewicz/European Pressphoto Agency


Together, the two events attract thousands of fans and music professionals each year and pump more than $1 million into the islands’ economy each year, officials said.

That is no small amount in Cape Verde, which became independent from Portugal in 1975. The youth unemployment rate is 36 percent, according to the national statistics office, and it is one of the few countries that has more diaspora citizens than locals: a population of about 500,000 on the islands but more than 700,000 abroad.

“When we became independent, all we had was people,” said Abraão Vicente, the newly appointed culture minister and an artist and poet himself.

“Today, all we export is music, maybe because it was always the easiest art,” added Mr. Vicente, whose wife is a prominent Cape Verdean singer who uses the name Lura. “You don’t need any material to sing.”

Mr. Vincente said one of his goals was to attract tourist dollars by staging musical events like the Atlantic expo across the islands. To finance these, Mr. Vicente plans to collaborate with international producers by offering space for their own festivals.

“But of course,” he said, “Cape Verdeans should be the ones involved, for those who don’t have a stage to find one.”

Last year’s breakout star was Elida Almeida. Scouted by programmers from France, the United States and Africa at the music expo, the 23-year-old from a mountainous village on the main island of Santiago has since toured the United States, Canada and is now performing in major African cities.

Ms. Almeida’s song “Nta Konsigui” has been used as the soundtrack for a Portuguese telenovela and her videos have received almost two million views on YouTube.

“I feel privileged to have gone so far in so little time,” Ms. Almeida said in a Skype interview from Cotonou, Benin, where she was performing. “My objective is now to take Cape Verdean music as far as possible.”

Abraão Vicente, the culture minister and an artist and a poet himself. Credit Neige de Benedetti


Empty of human life before their discovery by the Portuguese during the 15th century, the Cape Verdean islands were an early center for the shipment of slaves from the West African coast to the Americas.

“We are positioned in the middle of the Atlantic, right between the African continent and the Americas, so we were at the cross point, both culturally and physically,” said Charles Akibodé, a historian who was instrumental in getting Cidade Velha, one of the first settlements for transcontinental slavery, designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

For Helio Batalha, a 27-year-old hip-hop artist who performed at the music expo, that blending of cultures and history has led to a form of identity crisis for young Cape Verdeans. “We are told we are African, but we don’t know much about the continent,” Mr. Batalha said, sitting outside his uncle’s tiny storefront in Ponta d’Agua, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Praia.

He said the music expo had allowed him to meet producers and programmers, but nothing is booked for now. “There is a fantasy that after A.M.E., you get handed a plane ticket,” he said. “Let’s wait and see.”

Not every Cape Verdean thinks the festivals are a worthy investment.

“There are problems that could be solved with those amounts of money,” said Mirto Cesar, a 40-year-old unemployed electrician in Praia with two children. “There is real misery here, drugs, crimes, hunger. Misery music can’t solve.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Cesar said he would still take his children to hear afternoon performances on the town’s main square.

“Don’t get me wrong, it is part of their culture,” he said.

At 4 a.m. on the Saturday of the Kriol festival, Praia was still resonating with music. The crowd had moved to a seaside stage overlooking the Kebra Kanela beach. Up to play was a Cape Verde jazz veteran, Teofilo Chantre, known for having been a composer and musician with Cesaria Evora many years ago. He had never played so late, he admitted, and for this concert he had decided to ask musicians from the younger generation to accompany him.

On stage, Mr. Chantre’s languid, nostalgic voice seemed ignited by a different energy. Afterward, he seemed pleased with the collaboration, conceding he probably now had more to learn from the young players than they could from him.

“Music matters so much because we were always isolated here,” he said. “It’s what reconnected us, it put us on the map.”