Cape Verde: Songs under a Winter Sun

15 December 2013 - The Sunday Telegraph - Andrew Purvis

Tall, dark and film-star handsome with something of the X factor about him, Edson Oliveira is not your typical tour guide. “I’ll show you my poster,” he says, dancing into the traffic on Avenida 5 de Julho, the main drag in Mindelo, the capital of São Vicente island in the Cape Verde archipelago, 350 miles off Senegal. Somehow we make it to the Mindel Hotel, where his features adorn a 5ft-high hoarding. “Live Edson e Convidados” (Live Edson and Guests), it reads.

“I’ll take them by surprise,” Oliveira says, sidling up to a group of unusually tall men who have gathered beneath the poster, awestruck. “It’s the Cape Verde national basketball team,” he whispers, then stands behind them silently for a while, listening to their appraisal of his musical talents. “Bom dia,” he says, tapping one man on the shoulder. They all turn around and shriek.

It is as if they have seen Justin Bieber, and in Cape Verdean terms they have. In 2011, Oliveira was voted “best male voice in São Vicente” and went on to tour Spain with his band, Domu Afrika, performing with Femi Kuti, son of the late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. He often shares a stage with “Bau”, real name Rufino Almeida, the son of a local instrument maker who learnt to play the cavaquinho (a small four-stringed guitar) and toured with Cesária Évora, the Cape Verdean singer, born in Mindelo, who died two years ago this week .

“I took some Greek tourists to her house once,” Oliveira says, “and she invited them in for grogue” – Cape Verde’s cachaca-style sugarcane spirit. Just 48 hours before her death at the age of 70, Évora was receiving guests at her home and smoking, despite warnings that it would kill her.

It was the predictable final chapter of the story of Évora, who was raised in an orphanage and built on her early career as a singer on cruise ships to become a global superstar, filling concert halls from Lisbon to Paris. Her 1992 album Miss Perfumado sold more than 300,000 copies, thanks to her most celebrated song, Sodade, and in 2003 she was awarded a Grammy.

Performing barefoot, she was known as the “Queen of Morna” – the national music of Cape Verde, combining a melancholic singing style with a baroque accompaniment of cavaquinho, clarinet, accordion, violin, piano and guitar. It is the world’s most romantic music, like a cross between the blues and fado but sung in Creole, the secret language of slaves.

Inspired by Évora’s legacy, 40 per cent of São Vicente residents now play a musical instrument, and the tradition of morna is kept alive in bars throughout the archipelago. In Sal, the most visited and developed of the islands, with its all-inclusive hotels, white-sand beaches, surf shops and Senegalese hawkers selling carvings and trinkets, I had sat in La Tortue bar at the Hotel Morabeza, grogue caipirinha in hand, and listened to Silvia Medina. The modern face of morna, she won Cape Verde’s first pop reality show and renders Évora songs (Sodade, Carnaval de São Vicente) in a velvet voice accompanied only by keyboard and sax. At the Ocean Café in Santa Maria, the main resort in Sal, I had heard the same numbers belted out with passion at a tribute event marking the first anniversary of Cesária Évora’s  death. It raised the roof.

However, it is in Mindelo that travellers can get closest to the singer’s old beat. I am staying at the historic but faded Oásis Atlântico Porto Grande Hotel, where weekend jamming sessions in the bar can feature the likes of Bau and Khaly, Évora’s last keyboard player. Across the square, the Mindel Hotel showcases more progressive artists such as Oliveira, who switches easily between morna and reggae. Sessions start at 11pm and end at 2am, a late night for recent arrivals but perfectly palatable for locals.

As he takes me on a tour of Mindelo, Oliveira occasionally bursts into song and I can see where his fans are coming from. “São Vicente is the most English of the 10 islands,” he tells me, “because Mindelo was a British coal station in the age of steam.” Set up to fuel ships on the trading route from Britain to South Africa, India, Australia and South America, it had its heyday in the 1870s, when Cory Brothers, a south Wales coal merchant, cut its prices and created a surge in steamship traffic that lasted well into the 20th century.

“The English paid taxes to the Portuguese and created jobs in the port,” Oliveira says. “That led to a booming economy and São Vicente became the most organised of the islands. Names like Miller are common, and the English influence remains in our love of golf, cricket and afternoon tea at 5pm. My grandfather, who was trained by the British, was one of the best mechanics on the island.”

In 1885, Mindelo also became the switching station for the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Walking down Avenida 5 de Julho (which used to be called English Street), we pass the old colonial house where the British manager of the cable company once lived. Next door to it is the old primary school, the Telegraph School, more evidence of a British industrial diaspora.

It is a welcome history lesson, but the subject subtly returns to music. From a spot called Lajinha, we can see “Face Mountain”, resembling the features of a supine man, said by Oliveira to “inspire musicians”. The “Island of the Birds”, a conical volcanic rock off the harbour, is also “a musical muse”, he says. On the horizon, shrouded in mist, the neighbouring island of Santo Antão beckons, “a spiritual place”, Oliveira says, where Cesária Évora’s mother was born. On the first anniversary of the singer’s passing, it hosted a festival dedicated to her.

Bidding Oliveira farewell at Cesária Évora airport (where else?), I take the 50-minute flight to Santiago island, landing in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde. Away from the palm-fringed embassies and colonial architecture, however, it is pure Sub-Saharan Africa. At the food market, women in colourful kente cloth costumes carry exotic produce on their heads, among them xeren (crushed corn), okra, palm oil, sugar cane and green bird’s-eye chillies of the kind seen in west Africa. On the drive north from Praia, the culture becomes blacker still, a reminder that only the southern third of this island was colonised by the Portuguese; the rest was occupied entirely by escaped African slaves.

Beyond the town of Assomada, where I am shocked by the poverty and lack of infrastructure, the landscape becomes more dramatic, with jagged peaks of volcanic rock soaring like teeth above the rainforest. In the lowland clefts between them, where no rain falls, plantations of palms are irrigated by wind pumps, drawing much-needed water from underground. This is where hikers come to experience a tropical hinterland quite unlike Sal and Boa Vista, the main tourist islands, with their arid lunar landscapes and breezy kitesurfing beaches. As we round a bend on the way to Tarrafal, we glimpse through sea mist the 10,000ft cone of Fogo, a volcanic island where the fertile soil is ideal for growing coffee and even grapes, from which perfectly decent wine is made.

Back in Sal, I sip a cold Strela beer at Restaurante Ponta Preta, a shack named after an outcrop of black volcanic rocks famous among surfers. Days of Atlantic swell have kicked up breakers of unusual height and power, luring a handful of pros in wetsuits who have flown into Sal specially for the ride.

It is four days before Christmas and staff are doing their best to add some seasonal cheer. Cowering in the shade (it is 27C/80F), I watch a waitress tape tinsel to a beam, and ponder a festive menu of lobster, octopus, fish, rice and percebes (gooseneck barnacles, a local obsession). This is the winter sun that holidaymakers crave, and there is plenty of it. Like Dubai, Morocco and the Canaries, Cape Verde does what it says on the tin. It’s just that the colours inside are more intense and varied.

Getting there

Thomson ( flies direct from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to the main tourist islands of Sal and Boa Vista, with return fares starting about £250. Flight time is a little less than six hours. Tap Portugal (0845 601 0932; and TACV ( 00238 2608 260 ;, the Cape Verde national carrier, fly direct from other European cities, including Lisbon.


The Cape Verde Experience ( 0845 330 2071 ; is offering a 14-night Mountains and Beaches trip (including hotel stays on Sal, São Vicente and Santiago) from £1,895 per person, based on two people travelling. The price includes return flight, taxes (including visas) and transfers. Day visits to Santo Antão and Fogo can be added as a supplement.

Getting around

TACV operates regular flights between all the islands except Santo Antão and Brava, which are connected only by ferry. A TACV Air Pass allows you to book up to 10 inter-island flights in advance, but must be bought at the same time as a TACV international flight. Flight times are subject to constant change and delay, so are not for the faint-hearted. Fares cost about £80 per leg.

Where to stay 

Oásis Atlântico Porto Grande Hotel ££
Comfortable, slightly faded historic hotel with 48 simply furnished rooms, two suites, a decent restaurant, pool and gym, overlooking a pleasant square in the centre of Mindelo. The Lobby Bar is famous for its live music (Caixa Postal 103, Praça Amilcar Cabral, Mindelo, São Vicente;  00238 232 3190 ;

Hotel Morabeza £££
Family-run four-star just paces from the finest beach in Sal, with 88 rooms, 33 suites, three good restaurants (including the Beach Club), a swimming pool and activities ranging from kitesurfing and scuba diving to crazy golf. The shops, bars and restaurants of Santa Maria are a five-minute walk away (Caixa Postal 33, Santa Maria, Sal; 242 1020;

Where to eat 

Grills Baia £
Simple place, in sight of the main stage for the Baía das Gatas music festival held every August in São Vicente. Try grilled esmoregal (amberjack) with fries, boiled potato, salad and salsa verde, then sweet, rich pudim de queijo (cheese pudding) (Baía das Gatas, São Vicente; 232 6868).

Baia Verde £
A quirkily authentic restaurant (think AstroTurf carpet, jungle-style pot plants, plastic tablecloths and gaudy pennants) overlooking Tarrafal Beach in Santiago. There are three or four fish choices, plus Brazilian-style feijoada (pork and beans stew) (Tarrafal, Santiago; 266 1128).

Zum Fischermann ££
The best restaurant in Sal, run by Uwe Thom, a Berliner who came to Sal to run a game-fishing company. It only serves fish – whole or filleted – from the familiar (tuna, snapper, sea bream) to the exotic (Atlantic emperor, bulldog dentex, grunt), expertly cooked à point (Santa Maria, Sal; 991 7600).

La Villa £££
Aspirational Italian place in Santa Maria, with linen tablecloths, ice buckets, good service and a great wine cellar. Sit in the walled garden and choose from a menu featuring octopus salad, fish soup, swordfish tartare with pesto, seafood risotto and cachupa (Santa Maria, Sal; 242 1186).

When to go

The Cape Verde Islands are warm and sunny all year, with temperatures from 24C to 30C (75F-85F). August to October are the wettest months, and the islands are windy from October to June, peaking in January – good for watersports but dusty. São Vicente holds its carnival in mid-February and its world-famous Baía das Gatas international music festival at the time of the August full moon.

The inside track

Visit the Pedra Lume salt flats in Sal, an excursion bookable at hotels. Bathe Dead Sea-style in a lunar landscape – and emerge with perfect skin.

Shop for presents at the Cape Verdean Market in Santa Maria, Sal, a shady courtyard where pimenta rosa (pink peppercorns), papaya jam, malaguetta (a chilli condiment), wines from Fogo and grogue (sugarcane rum) are on sale.

Try the national dish, cachupa, a delicious velvety stew of corn and beans.

What to avoid

Apart from the salt flats, resist an (expensive) island tour of Sal. There is nothing much to see, though in desperation I was taken to spot a mirage!

Stray three blocks back from the sea in Santa Maria at night and you enter unlit territory where mugging, or at the least hassle, is a real possibility. Stick to the well-lit seafront area.

Don’t believe Senegalese traders in Sal seeking funds for a “wedding” or a “christening”. It’s a common ruse, and you will be approached even on the remotest dune.

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