| The Courier - N°158 - July - August 1996 Dossier Communication and the media - Country report Cape Verde |
It suffices for an unruly little bird to escape
For, suddenly, Fire to spark, Night to dissolve
The walls of every prison to cave in
From the tidal-wave battering
Amassed, in its untamed heart,
By a tiny breathless bird.
(Mario Fonseca in 'La Mer a tous les coupe')
Most cities in the Third World devote all their energy to mere survival and there are few imbued with the same atmosphere as Mindelo - the very air appears to brim over with art and good taste, beauty and sensuality. Our guide to the city speaks slowly, measuring his words, his delivery not an indication that he is searching for a translation, although it could be interpreted as an affectation, but matching the modulation of the language which is closest to his heart: 'I believe the air in this city is imbued with hedonism. Here, we mix work and pleasure - today is a holiday, but I am working. However, my day is not so rigidly timetabled that I cannot do some work and, since you have invited me out for a drink, take some time off to accept'.
Antonio Firmino, director of the Craft Centre, continues to tell us about his favourite city in the same steady language, a dreamy look in his eyes and wearing a Che Guevara-style beret. The tale he tells is the story of a tiny country which has fallen in love with culture: the actual building housing the Craft Centre used to be a school, the 'Mindelo Technical College', founded in 1917, the first secular educational institution. It was to transform the city into a cultural haven. The story goes that a certain senator named Vera Cruz, who represented the island of São Vicente in the Portuguese Senate, wanted to establish Cape Verde's first college. His peers objected, arguing that Mindelo had no building worthy of housing an institution of such a high standing but
Vera Cruz straight away replied: 'So, why not use mine?'. Thus, he casually handed over his private residence.
Art even in the fish market
How many inhabitants are there in Mindelo? According to Antonio Firmino, 'Just me and my friends'. How right he is. It would be impossible not to become part of such a captivating place. And so a long journey began, which included the creation of Claridade, a review (and cultural movement) established in 1938 by Balthasar Lopes, a writer and essayist of world renown who was born in São Nicolau but taught in Mindelo, and other great artists who were to make up the country's literary and artistic roll of honour. Claridade was to be followed by Certeza which was also to influence the cultural elite. Although historians and other commentators feel that Claridade did no more than praise Cape Verde's 'latinity', rejecting its African side, artists are unanimous in regarding it as the cradle of Cape Verdian intellectual culture and the soil which was to nurture Mindelo and make it such an extraordinary little town. The impression is that everyone here is interested in art - the local authorities encourage and help sculptors in their creative activities all over the town, making it a living museum: here, there is a painting by Antonio Conceiçäo and, over there, a huge flat sculpture of couples in languorous embraces, by Ro and Anildo, an illustration of the marvellous hedonism evoked by our host.
The same assured but delicate touch of these two artists can be seen in the lobby of Fishpackers, an anchovy- and tunapacking company, this time in the form of a celebration of fishermen. One of the finest examples of this type of art, which can be seen everywhere in the streets and public places, is the sequence of four huge decorative-tile frescoes in the fish market. When Bela Duarte showed them to us, it was such a delight to see how much at ease this famous artist was in the company of the staliholders, to whom both she and her work seemed so familiar.
Over and above this hedonistic atmosphere, there is, in Mindelo, an eclecticism which can be detected just as widely in other towns and cities, which means that you can talk about painting with the President of the Republic, dancing with a factory manager and decorative tiles with the man in the street. And the latter is literally 'in the street' - the inhabitants of São Vicente, the capital, derive immense pleasure from strolling in its squares and narrow streets, and around the port. A little stall, looking like a sugar loaf in the middle of one of the city's many squares, opposite a grand hotel, opens up in the early evening just like a flower, attracting hundreds of people to it who come to quench their thirst, to converse or woo, and to dance to the music escaping from the terrace of the Porto Grande Hotel, which has just reopened after being privatised and modernised.
It is as if a dress ball were taking place on two different levels, one in front of the other, dancing to the same music and with equal pleasure: above, in an enormous gallery open to the sky, elegant guests (who include a small gathering of government officials and pretty Brazilian actresses who are here to film television soaps) and, down in the square, the dancing promenaders, full of admiration, almost stimulating those above.
Cape Verdian nights
Like all the island's intellectuals, Antonio Firmino has a number of different jobs. In addition to running the
Craft Centre, he teaches 'nautical' English to would-be sailors, is an amateur painter and musician (he plays and composes for his wife, who is a singer). His spare time is devoted to writing a column. The Craft Centre exhibits, amongst other things, a large number of tapestries, an art form much prized in Cape Verde. These admirable examples are by Juän Fortes, Juamo Pento, and a good many others, in particular Bela Duarte, Tchalê Figueira, Lucia Queiros and Miguel Figueira, Mindelo's top artistic foursome who appear to be involved in everything, including the frescoes at the fish market. Bela, who showed us her studio, her house and the fish market, does not conceal the joy she derives from colour and allusion in her pictures, tapestries or decorative tiles, ranging from the most distant abstraction to an anecdotal figuration, using her native land with its doleful nuances, soft cries and romantic strength as raw material. Above all, there is convivial artistic writing: 'Resistencia', which is at first sight a tapestry and then a patchwork of colour and sinuous lines. Scarcely has the artist begun to explain her work than everything becomes clear: this is a story, in threads and colours, about drought, representing roots, energy, space and struggle, all part of the Cape Verdian soul. She is also paying homage to those weavers of traditional African loincloth (badiu) from Cape Verde from whom today's artists inherited their technique.
So, where to meet Antonio's friends? To find them, look no further than the Cape Verdian nights (noite caboverdiana), those gatherings which take place everywhere and resemble both a nightclub and an artistic association, all those present sharing a fondness for Cape Verde mingled with nostalgia and yearning. One such place is the Piano Bar, which was closed on account of the departure of its owner Chico Serra, another notable in local society, who was accompanying a friend, Césaria Evora, in her attempt to conquer new lands. Mission accomplished, Chico Serra is back and will soon be open for business again, his club's atmosphere just as intimate and warm as before - just enough room for his piano, his musician friends and others who come to sample grog and music.
Mario Fonseca also adores Mindelo but he would not agree that that wind-blown city has a monopoly on art and culture. He is from an island in the lee of the wind, from Praia, capital of the island of Santiago and of the country. In his opinion, it is the whole of Cape Verde which is bubbling with creativity and he will enchant you with his tales of Praia and its old colonial district, the 'Plateau', which still retains much of the nostalgic character to be seen in the now yellowing photographs taken 50 years ago when the city was not so sprawling and the ambience of Sucupira market was almost tangible. He will also tell you everything about the island of Santiago, with Cidade Velha, the ancient capital which was too difficult to defend against repeated pirate attacks. It bowed to Praia's supremacy and, today, has an old-fashioned feeling, nestling within a cove around the ruins of its castle, and dominated by the fort which perches above a cliff face. The architecture owes much of its charm to the predominant Creole style which is vaguely reminiscent of Portugal, in every pastel shade. Cidade Velha's central square is caressed by a gentle breeze and groups of young people can always be seen lazing around the monument to the slaves. Time seems to stand still. The pretty little white church whose walls are decorated with sheaves of bougainvillaea, Santa Maria do Rosario, is the oldest on the island and, indeed, along the entire West African coast. It was built in 1460 and the white marble paving in the central nave conceals the final resting place of grandees from colonial times, their epitaphs erased over five hundred years by the soles and knees of penitents.
The director of the INAC (National Cultural Institute), responsible for Praia National Museum (which is soon to open its doors), is Mario Alberto de Almeida Fonseca, who once taught French in Portugal; he is a former administrator who has worked in Mauritania and Turkey, a translator and also a former regional manager of the national airline. In addition he is a poet whose works have been translated into several languages, including Serbo-Croat and Russian. Above all, he is an amateur connoisseur of the art and artists of his country. As the INAC's director, he is responsible for cultural events, exhibitions, shows, publishing and also the compilation of an oral record of the country's history and the preparation of a Creole dictionary. The INAC's work also involves a major history of Cape Verde, the first volume of which has already been published. He will show you the future National Museum's collection, moving from one painting to another, from an old photograph to an antique cimboa, a type of locally-manufactured violin from the 1 9th century, or to an old Massachusetts galleon, testament to the past explorations of his people. You will first of all discover the works of artists from Praia such as Mito and Kiki Lima, not on account of Fonseca's chauvinism but because he feels he has to 'convert' the visitor who may have left Mindelo with the impression that that city is Cape Verde's premier cultural centre. There is also the music from the island of Santiago - the funana, the batuque, the finaço - all more African than the languid style so influenced by the Portuguese fado of this island's musical groups (Finaçon, Bulimundo, Tuvaroes, Kodé di Dona or the great traditional style singer Nha Inacia Gomes). Gomes is a 'women of the people' whose musical heritage consists of no more than local tradition.
It was she who 'reinvented' jazz and whom Alberto Fonseca admires a great deal. Cesaria Evora, moreover, is not the first musician to publicise Cape Verdian music abroad: Finaçon or Kodé di Dona, for example, have captivated many music-lovers, particularly musicians, in Europe and America.
The Chamber and the stage
Daniel Brito is not from Mindelo either. He is from Sal but confesses to having to pay regular visits to Mindelo, to immerse himself in that city's hedonistic atmosphere. For three years he has been director of the National Cinematographic Institute which was established in 1967 and is currently exhibiting newfound dynamism on account of the 'production tax' (4% of the filming budget, paid to the Institute and generally converted into a holding, which the State supplements to make the sum up to slightly more than 10% in co-productions). There is also an agreement with Portugal which encourages co-productions between the two countries, thereby enabling Cape Verdian technicians to receive their training. Brito is working on a local video-film-production project (TV viewers are very fond of such things) and wants to set up a major production centre to be made available to lusophone African countries and, perhaps, others.
Daniel Spencer Brito is also Sal's parliamentary representative (10 000 inhabitants), musician, writer/composer and guitarist in his own group, Madrugada. His talents include the composition of morna and coladeira pieces, as well as jazz-rock. At the end of May, the MP was due to appear in his own production at the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, as part of the lusophone music festival. You could say that he divides his time between the Institute, the Chamber and the stage; however, he is also involved in research into copyright protection in Cape Verde. Daniel (it would never occur to you to call him anything else, even five minutes after making his acquaintance) always gives the same advice to anyone wishing to discover Cape Verde, namely to get to know the atmosphere of a tocatinha, spontaneous jam sessions which take place at one location or another, usually even more intimate than the 'Cape Verdian nights'. By the way, I almost forgot - by training, Brito is a vet, having studied in Romania.