I first heard her voice as a 20-year-old college student in Cambridge, MA. My father had died unexpectedly two years earlier, and three of my four grandparents had passed since his death. As an only child, this loss was immense, numbing, confounding. As the child of immigrants from the other side of the world, it was more profound: a loss of connection to my Indian roots. A Lusophile preparing to study abroad in Brazil, I came across a compilation disc entitled, “Afropea: Telling Stories to the Sea,” and on it, her voice sang to me. It was haunting, bearing with it the feeling of sodade, a word that conveys nostalgia, yet has no direct translation in any other language. Several months later, while living in Salvador da Bahia, I would have the chance to see this incredible woman perform live, singing barefoot in front of hundreds of people, drinking whiskey on stage, and holding the entire audience, as well as her team of musicians half her age, in the palm of her hand. I was enchanted.
Her name was Cesária Évora. I would spend many hours listening to her recordings, memorizing the kriolo lyrics that spoke of love, longing, and homeland. I would write and record a jazz arrangement of her famous anthem, aptly titled “Sodade,” on my debut album VISIONS. But it was only when I visited her hometown of Mindelo, some 11 years after that day in Massachusetts when I first discovered Cesária, that I came to understand how the language of loss present in her voice was not only endemic to the music, but also deeply embedded in the history and culture of Cape Verde. If I could somehow understand her sodade, perhaps I could also better understand my own.
Cape Verde is an archipelago of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — geographically and culturally at the nexus of Portugal and Western Europe, West Africa, Brazil, and North America. It is the world’s first truly creole society; unlike most countries in West Africa, Cape Verde had no indigenous population at the time of Portuguese occupation. Thus, the island of São Vicente, in addition to being the birth and resting place of Cize — as Cesária is more affectionately called — is truly something of a racial paradise, having (mostly) escaped the horrors of the African slave trade (unlike the neighboring island of Praia), and having benefitted from the cultural legacy of Portuguese and British rule (in the 18th century, the British used São Vicente as their major coal refueling station in the Atlantic Ocean, increasing the island’s population and the possibilities for cultural hybridization). Today, São Vicente is known as the cultural capital of Cape Verde; it was home to Africa’s first movie theater, and its major port, Mindelo, is the musical capital of the archipelago.
Last year, I visited Cape Verde for the first time, spending one month on São Vicente. I had no agenda, no plans, and no travel guide. But from the moment I arrived at Cesária Évora International Airport, it soon became clear that I would spend every day tracing Cize’s ghost. Her former house was a stone’s throw from my apartment, and I walked or ran by it on a daily basis, peering inside and wondering who might open the door. Her picture seemed to adorn the walls of every restaurant, bar, and storefront in Mindelo; I could not escape her call even if I tried. I visited the island’s famous luthiers, who had constructed instruments for her touring band, and who were quick to educate me about the difference between the morna (a slow, mournful song, like “Sodade”) and the coladeira (comparatively more upbeat and danceable). And I began to discover stories about Cize from her old friends, neighbors, musical partners, and lay citizens who were eager to claim or disclaim her as their own; ultimately, many say she did for Cape Verde what no ambassador has ever done, putting it on the map through her international stardom (her status as a national hero only increased after she passed away in 2011).
Over the course of my time in São Vicente, I slowly began to understand the roots of sodade. There is a feeling of transience on that island that I have never before experienced in a physical place, only in my own internal sense of non-belonging. People there seem to accept it as a given that, at some point or another, a loved one, or they themselves, will have to leave: in search of educational degrees and work opportunities, or in escape of boredom and island fever. Indeed, more Cape Verdeans live in the diaspora than in Cape Verde itself, including populations in Boston and Rhode Island that trace back to the 1800s, when Cape Verdeans, known for their maritime expertise, were hired by cargo ships and whalers crossing the Atlantic. Most people I met have close relatives in Portugal, the Netherlands, or New England; many people I met had returned to São Vicente after living for several years, or even decades, abroad. Not unsurprisingly, given this penchant for migration, divorce and single parenthood seemed to run rampant; indeed, Cize’s first great love was a marine who left São Vicente for good, leaving her with a daughter to raise on her own. Sodade, then, comes from this feeling of impermanence, one that has steeped the nation’s music with sounds of melancholy.
It is in this place of impermanence, this paradise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where I found a sense of home that has eluded me for much of my 31 years. The closest I had come to this feeling previously was in Brazil, where I was inspired to become a professional musician after I saw firsthand the ways in which music could be used as a powerful tool for social justice. But in Cape Verde, I felt inspired not only by the musical and cultural richness around me, but also by a sense of identity that I could plug into as an itinerant global citizen. Now that it is clear why Cize’s voice summoned me nearly a decade ago, all my discoveries in São Vicente are but dangling carrots leading me down a path I must continue walking— in search of sodade, in search of Cesária.