Cesaria Évora – Queen of Cape Verde’s Currency

You can tell a lot about a country by the people they put on their money. After seeing that Cesária Évora, the deceased musical icon famous across the Portuguese-speaking world, gets top billing on the country’s highest note (2000 Escudos, or US $21) – I knew I’d like this place.

Music plays a central role in Cape Verdean culture, and Cesária is arguably the highest representation of that music. Mixing the old world sadness of Portuguese fado with new world Brazilian optimism, with an African accent, Cape Verde’s music is a constant feature in any visit to the islands. Music spills out of bars, music lingers late in the night in block parties that refuse to disband, and music serves as the soundtrack for countless shared taxi rides on bumpy cobblestone roads.

In my short two weeks on the islands, I was lucky to see different styles of live music almost every day. In Cidade Velha, Santiago, I witnessed a group of women dressed in white with red headbands chanting to a simple collective drumbeat surrounding the former slave pillory. In Santo Antão, a Dutch son of Cape Verdean émigrés passed me maracas to accompany a small group on the street. In Mindelo, the only American I met on the whole trip invited me out two nights in a row to see local legends perform Carnaval music from São Vicente and Brazil.

In Fogo, a Japanese researcher trying to trace the ukulele’s appearance in Hawaii to a Cape Verdean fisherman, walked me through songs he knew by heart at a Valentine’s Day party. In Brava, I was kept awake all night by Portuguese rap at a block party happening outside my bedroom.

The joy of music, even when it’s not exactly the type that excites or even calms you, is hard to escape here. It brings joy to others, and they share it with you. It’s elemental, it’s uncomplicated, and, like Cesária, it is held in the highest esteem by an entire society.

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