MENDES BROS. / “Diplomadu (Part 2)”

Cape Verde (or Cabo Verde or even Kabu Verdi) is a collection of small volcanic islands in the North Atlantic sea, west/northwest of the coast Senegal. Until 1975, Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony, having been used since the 15th century in whatever manner the Portuguese found commercially expedient. Later, by virtue of its location, the Portuguese began to use the islands as a hub for the burgeoning slave trade. Following a lengthy armed resistance Cape Verde finally won its independence in 1975. Because Portugal owned the islands for so long, the primary language of the approximately 500,000 people who live on the islands remains a Creolized version of Portuguese called ‘Kriolu.’ As in the country of Brazil, another former Portuguese colony, the official language remains Portuguese. The music of Cape Verde, however, is unique.

The most famous Cape Verdian by far is Cesaria Evora but there are other internationally-known musical acts from the islands, one of which is the Mendes Brothers, João and Ramiro. Their 1995 album, Diplomadu, is essentially an epic poem set to music. The narrative tells the political history of the Cape Verdian people, their ups and downs, their struggles with the various ruling elements both foreign and homegrown, and finally, their independence. The whole thing is in Kriolu though, so whatever might be gained from the lyrics themselves is lost on the vast majority of us who don’t speak the language. Luckily, the playing and singing is strong enough that it doesn’t really matter if you can’t understand the words.
mendes bros 01.jpg 
The Mendes Bros’ music is a curious but satisfying mix of gentle J.B.-style funk mixed with Spanish-inflected horns, hints of a reggae back-beat and vocals reminiscent of the sly smoothness of Brazilian Portuguese. And along with all of that comes the strange undertone which seems to infuse all island music – a contradictory feeling of earthiness and simultaneously, airiness. Cape Verdian music always seems grounded and yet dreamy. I mean that both literally and metaphorically.

In the literal sense, we hear the firmness of the percussion instruments grounding the music while the ethereal melodies provide the characteristic floating feel. In the metaphorical sense, Diplomadu is singing songs and using musical techniques that have been little changed for hundreds of years – their music is grounded in aged culture and tradition. And yet, to these American ears, their lilting tones sound less than corporal, like something that only happens in fantasies. Apparently, the Mendes Bros were joined by some 20-odd vocalists on Diplomadu; to me, it sounds like more – a lot more. I imagine the Mendes Bros, guitars in hand (I don’t even know if they play guitar…I’m just making this up), sand between their toes, the Atlantic lapping at the shore just behind them, leading their entire village in song. It’s late at night, fires are burning, food is cooking, children are dancing….

My little daydreams aside, João and Ramiro Mendes actually recorded this album in the U.S., in a small city named Brockton, MA which was (and remains) home to the largest concentration of Cape Verdians anywhere in the U.S.A. In fact, almost all Cape Verdians in the U.S. live somewhere in either Massachusetts or Rhode Island. I don’t know and won’t speculate as to why people from such a warm climate (the average winter temp. in Cape Verde is 75 degrees) would settle in the freezing cold Northeast of the U.S.A. I do know though, that although their current surroundings may be cold, their music remains warm, deeply infused with the spirit of their island home.

Songs from the Mendes Bros:

“Diplomadu” (Part 2) and “Diplomadu” (Part 3) from Diplomadu (MB Music - 1995)

“Cabo Verde” from Cabo Verde (MB Music - 2005)

—Mtume ya Salaam

            Return To The Source           

Amilcar Cabral, a major leader of the sixties African liberation movement. He was head of the PAIGC, the political formation fighting for the independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. For me, he was the single most important influence on my political development.

Creeping up on fifty years later, I still refer to and quote Cabral. I had to smile when I read that the Mendes Bros. had started their own record label—self determination! When Mtume wrote about the Mendes Brothers, I began doing a little background research on them. One website led to another, and another, and before I knew it I wanted to do include a number of contemporary Cape Verdeans in this write up. I had already decided I was going to pick four or five selections from Cesaria Evora for the Classic section but there were also a handful of younger musicians I wanted to highlight. Mtume suggested we do a follow-up next week. Initially I declined because there is a bunch of other music I wanted to get to but then as it’s getting close to time to go up, I’m still a long ways from ready to write a short add-on. (Writing short is one of the hardest tasks to do well.)

Additionally, regular readers of BoL are aware that Sara Tavares is one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters and she is of Cape Verdean heritage.

There is something totally engaging in the Cape Verdean lilt, the way their music flows gently but with great strength, plus it's a beauty with sadness at its core. Nearly two thirds of all Cape Verdeans live outside of Cape Verde. They have that diasporan spirit in spades. Their "sodade" colors all of their music a shade of night ocean deep blue. I as an African American relate to that on an intimate level. All of which adds to Cabral's well known injunction when he encouraged people to "return to the source," return to Africa, return to work with the workers in the cities, the farmers and fisherpeople in the rural areas, return, live among and learn from the people. It's all there in this music, in how many of them hold to their musical traditions and the creole language even as modern elements are added.

I'm listening to the Mendes Bros. as I write, I don't know what they are saying but I feel the relevance of their songs and I am inspired to want more.

All of which is to say, more Cape Verde next week.

The Cabral connection is not just that he was a great leader of the struggle in Cape Verde, it’s also that Cabral always counseled that we should do our best work and not try to take short cuts. More next week.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, January 21st, 2008 at 1:54 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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