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72. Cutting Corners in Cabo Verde between 1990 and 1995

MAY. 17, 2023


This episode travels to the Atlantic to discover the islands of Cape Verde from 1990 to 1995. Learn the story of the nation’s journey from colony to democracy and the remarkable leader who helped them get there. And discover the music of the islands, including the mournful music of Morna and the subversive sounds of Funana, courtesy of one of the bands keeping the music alive today.

Cape Verde, it turns out, is not called Cape Verde. Officially the Republic of Cabo Verde the island decided in 2013 to change its English name at the United Nations to Cabo Verde, aligning the English and Portuguese versions of its name.

Found in the Atlantic ocean, about 570km or 350miles off the coast of West Africa, it is made up of ten islands and, according to more than one website, five islets (maybe 8 islets). ( says: “Islet Landforms Have 3 Main Characteristics, a very small island, little or no vegetation and cannot support people living there.

The islands are volcanic in origin, believed to originate from a hotspot – ie magma rising up from the earth,

It’s a small nation – you’d need 137 Cape Verdes to make one France and it has a correspondingly small population of about 600,000 people.

Over 50% of the population live on the island of Santiago, which is the largest island, and home to the nation’s capital of Praia. The languages spoken are Portuguese, making it part of the Lusophone world, and Creole.

The national Anthem is called Cântico da Liberdade – chant of freedom and was made official in 1996, replacing "Esta É a Nossa Pátria Bem Amada", which was also the national anthem of Guinea Bissau, a nation they have very close links to. The music is by Adalberto Higino Tavares Silva, and the lyrics by Amílcar Spencer Lopes both of whom are still alive today.

The flag also relatively new – adopted in 1992. It’s a blue flag, about one third up from the bottom are three stripes of white, red and white again. The blue is the sea and the sky, the band of red and white the road to the future consisting of peace (the white) and effort (the red). Over this band is a circle of ten gold stars, a little bit like the EU flag, with the ten stars representing the islands of the country.

Interestingly, you can find a surprising number of people of Cape Verdean descent in New England – North East coast of the US. One 1983 article said “Sixteen thousand people of Cape Verdean descent live in…. New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Why? Was also the in the old whaling capital of the US.

The islands of Cabo Verde were located at an important stopping off point for oceangoing trade including whalers, a lot of Cape Verdeans would join whaling vessels and find themselves in the US.

In fact, expat Cabo Verdeans are still a major demographic for the country. The International Organisation for Migration says “The number of Cabo Verdeans living abroad today is estimated to be double the number of domestic residents”.

The need for people to go away to work is so significant it’s even catered for in the constitution. Cabo Verdeans not living in Cabo Verde are allowed to vote as long as they can demonstrate they still have a connection to the country. But what’s interesting is that rather than vote in the constituency where they’re from, or most recently lived, there are three specific electoral districts representing Cape Verdeans abroad in Africa; the Americas; and Europe and the rest of the world (with 2 representatives each).

The island has a NASA connection - Amílcar Cabral International Airport was a designated emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle.

And the nation also gives its name to a type of Hurricane – a Cape Verde hurricane is one that originates in this area, often heading out across the Atlantic and, because they have such a long stretch of open water to travel over, are often particularly intense when they reach land in the Caribbean or North America.

Cape Verde has very little in the way of resources – no oil, no big mines and between 75% and 90% of the food eaten on the islands is imported. Despite that in 2008 the country graduated from Least Developed Country (LDC) to Middle Income Country (MIC) status. As a result it is often cited as an exemplar of stability in Africa.

Less stale is the island fo Fogo, because it has Pico di Fogo, the nation’s highest peak and a volcano whose peak rises to 2,829 metres (9,281 ft) above sea level. It erupted in 1995 and 2014, yet still 46,000 people choose to live on the island.

In fact, there are 2 small villages Portela and Bangaeira, located in the caldera of the volcano.

Which is pretty brave.

History of Cabo Verde
Cabo Verde really cut some corners when it comes to history – by passing early man and thousands of years of history and going straight to the arrival of the Portuguese.

In the 1400s, there was a Prince of Portugal named Henry the Navigator, a Portugese prince got his nickname despite never having done any exploring himself.

But he did sponsor many a voyage, including three ships that, in 1456 discovered some of the islands of Cabo Verde, with the rest of them being spotted and mapped over the next decade.

Seven years later, in 1462 a bunch of Portuguse showed up to set up a new permanent settlement on the island of São Tiago (Santiago)

Thus they created a settlement Ribeira Grande (now Cidade Velha) on the Northern coast of the Northernmost island, creating in the process the first permanent European settlement city in the tropics.

In 2009 the city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the World.

The islands were in a great strategic location as a stopping off point and explorers Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan’s both stopped off here, as did traders – notably the slave trade between West Africa and the new world.

Settlements started to pop up and the islands prospered .

In the 1500s these riches attracted the attentions of pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake who first sacked Ribeira Grande in 1582 and kept coming back for more.

The area was also popular with Algerian corsairs, muslim pirates who set up a base there in the 17th century.

In 1747 the islands were hit with the first of several droughts and famines that have plagued them ever since. The islands ewre never great for sustaining human life in the first place – but this was made worse by deforestation and overgrazing by the people who moved in.

Three major droughts in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in well over 100,000 people starving to death.

On 16 April 1781 the Battle of Porto Praya took place off modern-day Praia, mostly notable for not featuring Portugal at all – instead it was a naval battle between Britain and France.

Slavery was abolished on Cape Verde itself in 1878 and although it lost the value of the slave trade, the island location was still useful – becoming a stopping off point to resupply transatlantic shipping in particular.

During World War 2, Portugal remained neutral although allied ships were stationed in the port of Mindeloo.

Despite this, the island still suffered, as this was another period of famine for the islands and thousands of residents died.

After World War 2, as with so much of the world, interest rose in independence.

In 1956 a man named Amílcar Cabral and friends formed the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC, an acronym for the Portuguese Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde), a joint independence movement with Guinea Bissau in West Africa.

Portugal at that time was a right wing dictatorship, was more resistant to letting its colonies go, but the Cabo Verdeans were determined.

In 1972 some autonomy was granted, but it wasn’t independence. Then in 1974 the Carnation revolution in Portugal overthrew the government and that changed everything – Cabo Verde declared its independence on 5 July 1975..

But, it still wasn’t a multi party democracy. In fact the PIAGC was the only game in town and it wasn’t until 1991 that the country saw the first multi-party elections in Cabo Verde.

For all that, overall Cabo Verde has experienced a stability not commonly found in post-colonial Africa. In 2013 US president Barack Obama said Cape Verde is "a real success story"

As for the future - an International Monetery Fund review from January this year said “The economic outlook is positive but subject to risks”

Good luck Cabo verde.

The road to democracy
The time period for this episode is 1990 to 1995. In 1991, Cabo Verde held multi-party democratic elections for the very first time.

But it was a long road to this burgeoning democracy, and in no small part it came down to the work of a man named Amílcar Cabral. He was born in Portuguese Guinea, on the West African mainland to Cabo Verdean parents.

Cabral went to study Agronomy in Portugal, after which he took a posting in Guinea Bissau, where he quickly became a leading figure in the independence movement. In fact Guinea Bissau and Cabo Verde shared a single, common resistance movement – the PAIGC - the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (Portuguese: Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, PAIGC).

Initially this was a non-violent movement, and it faced an uphill struggle, the people had been deliberately excluded from opportunities for learning and development, at the start of the independence movement, the whole of Portuguese Guinea had just 14 university graduates.

The Portuguese government, however, did not get the non-violence memo. In 1959 the Portugese, who were under the right wing dictatorship of Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, responded to a dockworkers strike supported by the PAIGC with violence and arrests.

25 people were killed in what became known as the Pidjiguiti massacre.

This made it clear to the PAIGC that they would have to take up arms. So take up arms they did, training people in military skills, with weapons supplied by China, Cuba and the Soviet union among others.
Cabral proved himself as smart a military leader as he was a revolutionary thinker – the PAIGC made significant gains in Guinea Bissau.

It wasn’t just about military success, Cabral was committed to getting the support of the people of the nation – so he sent people out on ‘hearts and minds’ misisons, but what was notable about these was they took a very specific approach. Rather than lecture the poor local people and instruct them that they were being exploited, they’d have a dialogue to help them realise for themselves.

“You are going to work on road construction: who gives you the tools? You bring the tools. Who provides your meals? You provide your meals? But who walks on the road? Who has a car?“

As a result of this approach, the PAIGC enjoyed a lot of support in the country.

Another aspect of Cabral’s decency was that he took a position that the fight was against the Portugese state, not the Portugese people and he maintained a focus on military and government targets. He was also keen to avoid the risks of revolution becoming personal, not political.

At one point the challenges of a decentralised guerrilla force saw some of the regional leaders starting to abuse their positions. Cabral acted to stop this, executing a number of his own leadership, but he was not naturally vindictive – for many, he advocated rehabilitation – including one person named Inocêncio Kani was fired for selling a boat engine – but he wasn’t executed - a decision that would have significant repercussions.

The fight against the Portuguese continued throughout the 1960s, and Cabral continued to be successful.

Meanwhile, Portugal was also fighting a similar battle in all their other colonies. Eventually over 40% of the budget of Portugal was being spent on colonial wars in Africa.

At the same time Cabral was also active on the world stage, meeting global leaders, even having an audience with the Pope, Paul VI, who said afterwards “”We are for the peace, the freedom , and the national independence of all people, particularly the African peoples,” which was pretty embarrassing for Catholic Portugal.

In November 1972 the PIAGC was granted observer status at the UN.

All this indicated that there would be only one outcome – independence. Realising this, in 1972, Cabral began to form a People's Assembly – so they would have a government-in-waiting in preparation for the independence of Guinea-Bissau.

It all seemed to be going so well, until 20 January 1973 in Conakry, Guinea. On his way home from a Polish embassy reception with his wife, Cabral was parking his Volkswagen Beetle. Suddenly, a military jeep put its lights full beam on him. o A group of armed men jumped out, rushed over and demanded he get in their vehicle.

One of those men was, according to Cabral’s wife, Inocêncio Kani the man Cabral chose not to execute for selling a boat engine. Cabral resisted and it was Kani who fired the first shot.

Cabral dropped to the ground, bleeding.

Kani then orders another man to machine gun Cabral – who is killed by a hail of bullets.

Kani and his accomplices were members of the PIAGC, but there are many who say that they were also working for the Portuguese, although this is denied by Lisbon.

So the death of Cabral did nothing to forestall independence, all it achieved was depriving the emerging nations of Cabo Verde and Guinea Bissau of a potentially great leader.

Despite it all, Guinea Bissau went on to declare its independence in 1973 and in 1975 Portugal experienced a revolution of its own – the Carnation Revolution – a military coup and civil uprising that put an end to the far right dictatorship that had held on so tightly and bloodily to its African colonies.

Almost immediately Portugal started negotiating independence terms with its colonies and on 5th July 1975, Cabo Verde became independent.

In June 1975 the people prepared for their first elections as an independent nation and the choice put before them was to vote for the PAIGC or not. The PAIGC was the sole legal party at the time so it was the only name on the ballot.

The list was approved by 95.6% of voters, with a turnout of 86.7%.

In fact there wasn’t a second party on the ballot until 1991, when the Movement for Democracy MpD was created and ran against the PAICV, (changed from PAICG in 1980) winning the election and starting a mostly two party democracy that has continued to this day.

Sadly Cabral was not there to see it, but they have not forgotten him. Today you can take a flight to Amilcar Cabral International Airport, stroll through Amilcar Cabral square in Mindelo, or play football in the Amilcar Cabral cup. · And every year there are celebrations and parades on National Day the 12 September – the birthday of Amilcar Cabral, described by The Times as “One of the most extraordinary leaders and thinkers of modern Africa”.

The sounds of Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde is famous for its music. And 1991 saw the release of an album called Mar Azul (Blue Sea), by someone who was to become one of the nation’s greatest stars.

It featured a small band playing a sad kind of ballad particular to Cabo Verde called Morna, which could be described as the sound of Cabo Verde.

In fact, Morna is such a significant part of the nation’s heritage, in December 2019, it was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

It’s believed it was originally sung by women who were brought as slaves from West Africa, who would improvise songs talking of their day to day life, often satirically. It’s not exactly clear where in Cabo Verde Morna originated - one researcher said that whichever island of Cabo Verde you were one, the residents would tell you with great certainty that they were the originators of Morna.

It was a music of the people, a mournful minor key music, sung in the Creole language. It dealt commonly in themes of love and loss, but in particular something called Saudade - the feeling of love for the homeland and the sea, a sense of mourning for what is lost and the hope of someday a return.

One famous Morna songwriter said “We sing with water in our eyes, we dance whilst our soul is grieving.”

And in the 1991 album, Mar Azul, the singer of those mournful Morna was a woman named Cesária Évora.

Évora was born in 1941 in Mindelo, a port station and a refuelling point for for transatlantic shipping on the island of São Vicente.

By the age of 15 years old, Évora had been orphaned and was already earning money singing in bars. Her remarkable voice meant she was soon singing on local radio stations and for the Portuguese cruise ships that stopped in town.

As well as her voice, she was notable for performing without shoes, a look which eventually became her trademark and her first album was named The Barefoot Diva.
Eventually she was invited to sing in Portugal, where she was spotted a Parisian musician of Cape Verdean descent and signed to his small label.

It was this label that, after a couple of initial starts, the 1991 Mar Azul album was released, bringing her media attention and the interest of international record labels.

The next album was released in 1992 and entitled Miss Perfumado. This album was a real hit – it sold 300,000 copies in France alone - a far cry from bars and cruise ships.

So Évora set out touring the world, becoming one of Africa’s most successful musicians.

From 1995 to 2009 Évora released albums and toured, released albums and toured, becoming wealthy but never letting it go to her head.

Sadly from 2005 her health began to decline, she had a stroke and a heart attack and, in December 2011 she died.

However, the music of Cape Verde isn’t all about gazing longingly out to sea for what is lost. There is another type of music of the island called Funana.

This is a traditional music of the people and before 1975 and independence, it was actually banned by the Portuguese for being subversive.

And Funana is still played today. One band keeping the music alive is called Grupo Pilon and this episode features a short interview with their drummer Tony Furtado.

“My name is Tony Furtado, drummer of the band Grupo Pilon, I joined the band in 1988, two years after its formation. The band was formed in Luxembourg in 1986, these members of teenagers, children of the first Cape Verdeans who came to settle in Luxembourg in the 1970s.

The funana, originating from the island of Santiago, the most populated, was prohibited during the time of the Portuguese colonizers because it was considered subversive because it was played by the peasants, using a diatonic accordion and a piece of iron that marked the rhythm with a knife. the singers used the funana to recount their daily lives and also to denounce abuses of power. the funana was only able to express itself fully after the independence of Cape Verde on July 5, 1975 with the introduction of electric instruments in the compositions, thanks to a musical genius Carlos Alberto Martins nicknamed "Katxas", he gave his title of nobility to this music

In the 80s and 90s, there was a strong evolution of Cape Verdean music maintaining the rhythm and traditions of Cape Verde with groups formed in Europe such as Grupo Pilon, Livity, Rabelados, Gil and the perfects and Finaçon au Cap Green. currently it's complicated, the new generation has taken power in the media but what they do is anything but Cape Verdean music, they evolve in rap, hip hop, afrobeat etc.. all sung in Cape Verdean criol. There is an exception with Elida Almeida who knew how to keep the Cape Verdean essence in her compositions and then the old groups like us, but that media and musically we are sidelined

Now, if you want to check out the music of Grupo Pilon, you can find them on youtube @grupoPilon and on Spotify.

Check it out.

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