Although over the past twenty years or so Cape Verde, the tiny island nation comprised of an archipelago of 10 different, volcanic islands off the Northwestern coast of Africa has been hailed as one of the continent’s most stable democracies, its history suggests that things were very different. With a prime location in the Atlantic Ocean, the island nation was uninhabited until the 15th century, when the Portuguese colonized it, established it was not only the first European settlement in the tropics; but as a major commercial center and stopover point for the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the 16th and 17th centuries. The decline and eventual abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century resulted in a crippling economic crisis; however, because of the island’s location in the middle of major shipping lanes, it quickly became an important commercial center and port. Interestingly, with few natural resources and inadequate sustainable investment from the Portuguese, who had controlled the island nation for the better part of 300 years, Cape Verde’s citizens had become increasingly frustrated with colonial rule.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a series of independence and nationalist movements across colonized Africa began sprouting up across Africa –including Cape Verde. In 1951, Portugal changed the island nation’s status from a colony to overseas province in an attempt to blunt Cape Verdeans growing nationalism; however, by 1956 Amilcar Cabral led a group of Cape Verdeans and Guineans, who formed the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). The group demanded improvement in economic, social and political conditions in Cape Verde and Portuguese Guinea — and interestingly enough, formed the basis of both nations’ independence movement. After moving its headquarters to Conakry, Guinea in 1960, the PAIGC began an armed rebellion the following year, which resulted in a bloody and complicated civil war that had Soviet Bloc-supported PAIGC fighting Portuguese and African troops.
Portuguese Guinea declared independence in 1973 and was granted de jure independence the following year as Guinea-Bissau. Amilcar Cabral led Cape Verde’s burgeoning independence movement until his assassination that same year, then led by Cabral’s half-brother Luis Cabral, who led the archipelago nation to independence in 1975. Much like their counterparts across the continent, the tiny island nation suffered through the similar ills of a society born by and influenced by colonialism, slavery and greed struggling to integrate into a rapidly globalizing world — and not quite knowing how to do so. The sense of detachment from the modern world fostered among Cape Verdeans a yearning to integrate, to connect with the larger world in any way that they could. And those who emigrated to the cosmopolitan European cities didn’t find much respite as Cape Verdeans were viewed as “hot-blooded” “dropouts” and “juvenile delinquents.” However, with the ready availability of electronic instruments, a doorway to a sense of modernity and an perceived anchor in their adopted homes was understandably seductive. As Val Xalino, a Cape Verdean-born, Gothenburg, Sweden-based electronic music artist and pioneer of his birthplace’s electronic sound explains in press notes “Cape Verdeans were celebrating their independence and with that the dancing became even more important.People wanted to hear something different. They wanted the synthesizer!”
Émigré musicians began traveling back and forth between Europe and their island homeland with luggage packed with synthesizers and MIDI instruments. And although many were primarily urban-based, musicians began frequent traveling to the countryside to learn the rhythms and melodies of rural farmers, frequently sampling melodies played off of slightly off-tune and damaged accordions and other field recordings. The result was this weird and compelling sound that drew from folk melodies and rhythms and contemporary electronic production — and from both African and European influences. The hearts and minds of a new nation of passionate, musically-included people were enthralled, including Paulino Viera, who would quickly become the island nation’s most important, beloved and influential musician.
Veira was especially drawn to keyboard-based instruments as he had honed his skills playing organ and piano at a Catholic seminary. His musical career started in earnest as a backing member of the renowned vocalist Cesaria Evora, whose cavaquinho-based folk songs received international attention while being instrumental in establishing the island nation as a music scene worthy of your attention — especially if you were into music across the wildly diverse African Diaspora. Interestingly, an underground electronic music scene had started with Viera leading charge once he relocated to Lisbon, Portugal, where he lead Voz de Cabo Verde, a beloved ensemble that frequently collaborated with other Cape Verdean-born musicians across the Diaspora. As Elisio Gomes, a Cape Verdean-born, Paris-based vocalist, who collaborated with Veira often, explained in press notes ““Paulino was the most visionary. He always had this gift to be 10 years ahead of his time. That’s why our music sounds like it was produced today.”
Now, as I’ve mentioned frequently on this site, the technological advances brought forth by computers and the Internet have made discovering new and extremely rare, lost music from known and little known artists much easier, all while contributing to the proliferation of extremely niche based labels, who are willing to take careful and thoughtful risks based around the tastes and listening habits of their staff and their most fervent followers. Naturally, it meant these smaller, niche labels would frequently spend their time re-introducing artists, whose work was so far ahead of its time that audiences just couldn’t grasp it upon its initial release — and yet fills in an important gap historically speaking; re-introducing regionally favored artists, whose work should have seen a bigger audience but didn’t; releasing music from various locations around the world that Westerners should know and love but was largely ignored; to provide an alternate history of developments across a genre — based on a region or a country that Westerners had long ignored and so on. And adding to a growing list of small labels releasing cool stuff, Ostinato Records will be releasing a cool compilation of electronic music from Cape Verde — a compilation in which the aforementioned Paulino Veira contributes to about half the songs — titled Ostinato Records Presents: Synthesize The Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica From The Cape Verde Island 1973-1988.
And through 18 extremely diverse tracks, the compilation will reveal how immigration from Cape Verde to Europe and the US created an alternate history of electronic music that had been largely ignored by most Westerners. Manuel Gomes’ “Jelivrà Bo Situaçon” pairs propulsive African percussion, shuffling Nile Rodgers-like funk guitar, twisting and turning keyboard chords played on what sounds like an old Casio keyboard paired with Gomes’ softly yearning, bittersweet vocals and is the compilation’s first single. Sonically speaking while the song clearly has the mark of either decidedly lo-fi production or comes as the result of re-mastering from old analog masters, it possesses a hypnotic, cosmic glow with groove and melody turning into one cohesive unit. And while being a bit bittersweet, the song at its core possesses the sense of unbridled freedom and possibility of the dance floor, and the hopes and dreams of a new nation learning to create its own image and history for itself.