What follows is a first-hand account of VFH’s Virginia Folklife Program’s first journey to Cabo Verde in 2016 as chronicled in our most recent edition of VFH Views. In the fall of 2017 the Virginia Folklife Program returned to Cabo Verde, a musical and culturally rich island nation off of the West Coast of Africa, to follow up on our successful 2016 cultural exchange. More on the 2017 trip can be found at the end of this article.
When we arrived on the tiny Cape Verdean island of Fogo, the locals were still constructing a makeshift stage, welding together the frame and hammering salvaged plywood to its sides. Its name the Portuguese word for “fire,” Fogo was the site of a volcano that last erupted in 2014, engulfing this isolated West African community in flame and lava. I came here in the autumn of 2016 with Danny Knicely, a multi-instrumentalist from the Shenandoah Valley, and Cedric Watson, an Afro-Creole musician from Louisiana, as part of an exchange arranged by the Folklife Program at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Cape Verde. Over two weeks we met and performed with Cape Verdean musicians in local schools, public squares, community centers, artists’ colonies, and public parks. We also played at Pillory Square in Cidade Velha, the oldest Portuguese settlement on the islands, which became a major port in the transatlantic slave trade.
On November 5 we played a community concert on Fogo for the displaced residents along the caldera, or volcanic crater. The traditional music of this region is fiddle-based, making the musical collaborations between Americans and Cape Verdeans especially rich, not to mention a welcome respite for people struggling to rebuild. In fact, it was the first musical performance on Fogo since the eruption and, by all accounts, the first-ever performance by western musicians in the caldera.
“It was a happy celebration,” Knicely said of the all-night jam session, “but I was moved to tears as a Cape Verdean, who grew up in New England, translated a song being performed by the local Montrond family. The daughters sang of their sadness at no longer being able to live where their family has for generations.”
The parallels between the American and Cape Verdean traditions were striking. Morna, a nostalgic and longing singing style originating on the Cape Verdean island of Santiago, sounded hauntingly like Virginia’s mountain ballads. Listening to Fogo’s fiddle-based music you could imagine you’re sitting in the parking lot at the Galax Fiddlers Convention. And funana, an electrifying dance music, is deeply reminiscent of French Louisiana zydeco. The instruments are similar, too. The cavaquinho resembles a cross between a ukulele and a mandolin, while the
ferrinho is played much like a French creole washboard.
Such connections make sense. Cape Verde brought together cultures from across Africa, while slavery dispersed African styles across North and South America, mixed with European traditions. The largest Cape Verdean communities in the United States are in New England, but they also exist in Virginia. The Shout Band gospel tradition, played exclusively with brass instruments, is based in the United House of Prayer for All People, an East Coast congregation with a large number of churches in Hampton Roads and other parts of Virginia. It was founded by the Cape Verdean immigrant Manuel “Daddy Grace” da Graca early in the twentieth century.
There is nary a musical tradition in Virginia, be it blues or bluegrass, that is not the result of this kind of cultural mixing. For this and other reasons, Cape Verde was the perfect location to revisit such historical connections and to more deeply understand our own distinct folk traditions and, for that matter, what it means to be a Virginian.
Return to Cabo Verde
Just as we did in 2016, for our return to Cabo Verde in 2017 we brought a small delegation of musicians to collaborate with local artists, visit public schools and share Virginia’s musical traditions through public concerts and community events. Along with returning Shenandoah Valley multi-instrumentalist Danny Knicely, on the return trip we brought Virginia traditional musicians Aimee Curl and Jared Pool.
Thanksgiving Day on Fogo
Photos From the 2017 Trip