The story of morna: Cape Verde’s music of displacement and return
How a music shaped by slavery, epidemics, famine and mass migration travelled the world, narrating stories of suffering and resistance.
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Mariana dos Santos was 18 years old when she left her home in Cape Verde, the archipelago of volcanic islands off the coast of West Africa, for neighbouring São Tomé and Principe.
It was 1954, and she had been given a contract to work picking coffee, coconut and cocoa at a plantation. She joined the thousands of Cape Verdeans leaving the country to work as labourers in other Portuguese colonies – something promoted by the colonial authorities as a way of alleviating demographic pressure on the islands and filling labour gaps abroad.
“I felt like it was time, I was grown up enough and I had to go look for a better life,” the now 85-year-old tells Al Jazeera.
On the day Mariana was set to leave, her boyfriend João accompanied her to the port with his guitar. He serenaded her until she boarded the ship.
“Who showed you / That far away path? / The path / to São Tomé. / Sodade, sodade, / Sodade / …” he sang. “If you write me, / I will write you / if you forget me, / I will forget you…”
The song, Sodade, was written down with some modifications by a local salesman, Armando Zeferino Soares.
Years later, it would become one of the world’s most famous mornas, a Cape Verdean musical practice believed to date back to the 18th century.
Born out of the slave trade
“Cape Verde is born out of the experience of forced migration,” explains Edson Brito, a historian working at Cape Verde’s Cultural Heritage Institute.
The ten-island archipelago is one of the few nations in the world to be born out of the transatlantic slave trade. In the 1400s, Portuguese settlers occupied the islands, turning them into a trading post where enslaved people would be taken from West Africa and trafficked to Europe and the Americas.
After the abolition of slavery under the Portuguese empire, recurring droughts and desertification in Cape Verde resulted in periods of famine and epidemics. This led to several eras of mass migration which shaped the history of the nation – like the one that took Mariana to São Tomé and Principe for more than 10 years.
It was against this backdrop of emigration and return that morna was born. And in December 2019, it was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Initially performed by women who were brought into the archipelago from West Africa and forced into slavery, improvised songs were used by “Cantadeiras” (women singers) to speak of day-to-day affairs – often taking on a satirical format.
“People would be placed on the island and forced to take care of cattle, and it is believed that morna comes from an ancestral African rhythm called Lundum or Landú. Until today, if you travel to Boa Vista island, people still practice Landú in weddings,” explains Brito, who was a member of the commission that provided supporting evidence for the UNESCO application.
Despite there being some consensus on the origins of morna amongst the country’s scholars, Cape Verdeans are not always as quick to agree. Brito explains that because of the archipelagos’ fragmentation, people were historically unaware of what happened on neighbouring islands.
“When I was travelling throughout the country, most elders would tell me with certainty that morna was born on their island. We are a discontinued country. Only around the 1940s, with the arrival of broadcast radio, does this begin to change.”
Over time, morna, also known as “música rainha” (“queen music”), underwent several changes to its melodic and rhythmic characteristics, becoming the slower, more mournful version heard today. Characterised by three dimensions of melody, poetry and dance, morna is often sung in Kriolu, Portuguese-based Creole, though it can be instrumental, too.
Eugénio Tavares: poet and composer
In 1867, Eugénio Tavares was born on the island of Brava. At the age of 12, he started publishing poetry and soon became one of Cape Verde’s most prominent poets and morna composers.
Tavares lived through the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1875, as well as waves of hunger that led hundreds of Cape Verdeans to leave for the United States.
“This period coincides with one of the first periods of mass emigration of Cape Verdeans to North and South America, predominantly the United States and Argentina. Whaling ships would stop for fuel and would take sailors with them,” explains Brito.
The Cape Verdeans, who predominantly settled in Boston, New Bedford, Providence and Nantucket Island, took morna with them.
Tavares spent a decade in exile in New Bedford, where he started his own newspaper and became a fierce advocate for Cape Verdean independence.
Like morna singers and composers who succeeded him – Tavares became a translator of Cape Verdean life – writing extensively of “sodade”, the nostalgia for the homeland, for his cretcheu (loved one), and the uncertainty of return.
He won praise for his ability to express the dilemma at the centre of Cape Verdean life, the pain of leaving and the desire to do so in search of better conditions. He equated emigration with sorrow, writing, “We sing with water in our eyes, we dance whilst our soul is grieving.”
Speaking of the absence of freedom and decent living conditions on the islands, he wrote in the morna, “Hora di bai” (Time for departure): “Captive body, you go, for you are slave! Oh soul, alive, who will take you?” (“Corpo catibo, Bá bo que é escrabo! Ó alma bibo, Quem que al lebado?”)
Cesária Évora: legend
The song that Marianas’ boyfriend, João, sang to her that day in 1954 spoke of sodade, a term considered to be “untranslatable” from the Portuguese Saudade, and the latin “solitate” – which embodies the feeling of nostalgia and longing that comes from the absence of someone or something in the past.
Years later, the modified version was arranged by the Cape Verdean musician Paulino Vieira and interpreted by Cesária Évora, the legendary Cape Verdean singer and Grammy award winner who died in 2011. Sodade became one of the most recognised tracks in the 1992 Grammy-nominated album, “Miss Perfumado”, which marked Évora’s commercial breakthrough.
Growing up in the port city of Mindelo, Évora began singing as a teenager in sailor taverns. Évora would later recall how as a young girl she would sing in the city square, explaining in an interview, “I did it to keep the sad things away.”
She became a familiar face throughout the island, known for her soulful voice. In the warm nights of Sao Vicente, Cize, as she was affectionately known, was a regular presence in cafés and bars, often singing on the Portuguese ships that disembarked on the Mindelo harbour.
But it wasn’t until 1988, when she was 47 and living in Paris, that her international career began. She would sing of love, longing and often about her little island of Sao Vicente. It was not only mornas, but often coladeiras – a more upbeat genre of Cape Verdean music, and other rhythms of the islands that Évora brought with her.
Interpreting a morna by the composer Manuel D’Novas called “Sombras di distino” (“Shadows of destiny”), Évora sang, “My life is rootless / like the fate of a Cape Verdean son / With a fickle peace (…) My fate is to suffer / In nostalgic silence.”
Her warm vocals sometimes concealed the gravity of the stories she narrated, speaking of suffering and resilience. In an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Público she explained, “Nobody understands Creole, but that’s not important. The music says everything. They understand the music.”
In a morna, “Paraíso di Atlantico” (“Atlantic Paradise”) written by the same composer, Évora meditated on the conflicted relationship with her homeland.
Cape Verde is a broad-leaved tree
Planted in the middle of the Atlantic
Its branches have spread out
Throughout the world
Each leaf is a beloved son
Who has gone far, venturing abroad
In search of a better
And more dignified future
Our people are united
In peace and social grace
Cape Verde, small and cherished,
Cradle of love and nostalgia
Paradise of the Atlantic
B’léza: acclaimed composer
As the audiences for Évora’s music grew, the accolades started to arrive. But she remained unchanged: an inimitable presence on stage, carrying the stories of the archipelago and the words of its poets throughout the world.
One of these poets was Francisco Xavier da Cruz, also known as B’léza, one of Cape Verde’s most acclaimed morna composers, and Évora’s cousin.
B’léza was known for his distinct lyricism which launched him into fame in the 1940s.
Growing up on the island of Sao Vicente, B’léza’s parents worked for British employers, as did many Cape Verdeans on the island. At a crossroads between three continents, the city of Mindelo became a crucial coaling station for Britain in 1848, and by 1900 was amongst the largest in the world – with thousands of vessels stopping for coal, communications and provisions.
With the onset of the great depression in the 1930s these numbers dramatically decreased, but the port remained busy over the following decades.
Life in the port city greatly influenced B’léza’s music. Spending time with Brazilian sailors who had brought their guitars with them, B’léza began to incorporate elements of Brazilian music into his own morna compositions. He was later credited with revolutionising the melody and harmonic structure of the musical practice.
A consequence of the country’s insularity, B’léza’s mornas often spoke of the ocean – which was sung as both a mediator between the homeland and the “terra-longe” (far-away land). Some believe that the cadence of the waves can be heard in morna’s slow, danceable rhythm.
One of his widely known mornas, “Mar azul” (“Blue Sea”) was interpreted in an album of the same name by Évora in 1991, kickstarting her international career out of France.
Oh sea, stay calm
And let me go to see my country again
And kiss my mother
Oh blue sea, swell gently
Oh moon, light my way
So I can return
To my little São Vicente
And kiss my love
Oh sea, the years have passed
Time has flown
The sun has shone
The moon has risen
And I am still far away
In a distant land, oh sea
Yet, for B’léza, the ocean was a conflicted territory – both an oppressor, the cause for the archipelago’s insularity, and the key to survival, the connection with the outside world.
The ocean fueled the dreams of those who longed for a better life – but it was also the reason for pain, sodade and dreaded departure.
In his hometown of Mindelo, the composer would often be found playing by the door of his house, which was regularly full, brimming with music. Throughout the island, people would come to “order” serenades for loved ones, or songs to mark important events, which the composer would deliver within days.
In the last years of his life, deteriorating health left him confined to a wheelchair after a lifelong battle with Pott’s disease. His wife and children moved to Lisbon and the composer spent his time teaching and writing. It is believed that days before his passing, at the age of 53, B’léza, wrote, “Lua Nha Testemunha” (“The moon is my witness”),
Ask the moon in the sky
My companion in loneliness
Moon, vagabond of space
Moon, my companion in loneliness
Who knows my whole life
Tell the one I love
How I suffer without him
Tito Paris: a musical ambassador
While morna covers a variety of themes, it is distinct for the way in which it depicts the experience of migration, speaking of love, the yearning for the homeland and for those who leave.
“I cannot step on stage without playing a morna,” says Tito Paris, an acclaimed Cape Verdean musician living in Lisbon.
Tito learned his first guitar chords with his sister Veronica, at the age of seven. Three years later, he began playing in Cape Verdean music nights, accompanying some of the islands’ most recognised artists. At 19, he left for Lisbon – joining the notorious morna singer, Bana.
“Leaving Cape Verde was very tough for me – I left my friends behind, my reality.
“Morna already lived with me, in my soul – but I began to appreciate it more once I moved abroad. When I listened to it on the Portuguese radio – I would be very proud of what we have. What we have is a classic, I treat morna like the Americans treat the blues.”
When Tito arrived in Lisbon in 1982 there was already a growing community of Cape Verdeans who left following the decolonisation movement of the late 1970s. Abroad, the musical practice became a part of daily life, passed on between generations.
“In Lisbon, everybody would get together and sing, and everyone wanted to record. It was a way for people to meet, to have a nice cachupa (traditional stew), a nice fish broth, to play a good guitar, and have a nice grogue (sugar cane brandy). Music was always very important for the community.”
“When I play a morna with Cape Verdeans in Lisbon … if we close our eyes, we are singing in Mindelo, or any other city in Cape Verde.”
Tito eventually worked on the arrangement of one of Cesária Évora’s albums. Today, he is one of the biggest ambassadors of Cape Verdean music abroad.
“We have to be the ones to tell our story and our history, to share our music and the message of the great composers.”
Tito believes that morna remains closely connected to Cape Verdeans’ sense of identity both at home and abroad, particularly amongst younger generations.
“Getting to know your roots, where your parents are born, the school they went to, talking to your neighbours, all of this is morna. Going for a dive, having a torresmo (crackling), drinking a coffee straight from the fire … this is morna too.”
Teófilo Chantre, a Cape Verdean composer and musician who wrote various songs for Évora, explains, “morna is the bridge we create between Cape Verde and the diaspora.”
Chantre, who moved from Cape Verde to Paris at 14, says, “It is a feeling of being alive, of telling a story, of reliving things – it’s very connected to this, it’s a sadness, but more like a joyful sadness.”
“In Cape Verde we play a morna thinking of those who are far away, of those who are no longer with us – I always think of my grandparents, and it is the sodade of those who left, and in the diaspora it is the sodade of return, of reliving something of the past.”
In a song he wrote at 24, “Segunda Geração” (“Second generation”), Chantre imagines the life of a young person born abroad.
I was born in the cold climate
of a western country
My father and my mother
Kept their traditions
Making me feel
Sodade in a morna
Trying the taste of a Cachupa
Getting to know our Morabeza.
I am a creole,
an emigrated creole of second generation
Who does not want to lose his identity.
But I respect the land that has welcomed me
And I learn to live in its society
Armando Tito: ‘I had music in my heart’
Over the years, morna has been an important piece of historical text, mirroring Cape Verde’s history and day-to-day life throughout the centuries, and speaking also of the hardships of life under slavery and colonialism.
Today, it continues to be passed on through generations, and is generally played with a viola, cavaquinho, violin, piano, and a violão (guitar) – the instrument of excellence in morna. It remains part of the collective day-to-day life of many Cape Verdeans, often also being played at baptisms, weddings and funerals throughout the islands and abroad.
Armando Tito was seven years old when he first started playing in his hometown of São Vicente.
“First, I started playing on a frying pan, because I didn’t have any instrument. Later, my father had a guitar made for me.
“My father taught me my first chords. Everyone in my family played. My mother, my siblings … and we would make sure to teach anyone who would want to learn. Everyone would come around to our house to learn how to play music, it was like a school, and nobody had to pay.
“Being poor would be over in a second – and that’s why we would teach our fellow neighbours how to play, for free, because having a group of people around us was more important. That is how we fed our spirit, so morna helped a lot of people. It helped those who played and helped those who listened.
“Our poverty in Cape Verde, it was rich for me – even when I was hungry, I had music in my heart, and it made me happy.”
By the age of 10, Armando had already recorded his first album with Cesária Évora in Cape Verde, “We were good friends since I was a child.”
At 13, he met B’léza. “I would go over to play music at his house, at the time he was already sick, in his wheelchair – but he would sit there and listen to us play every weekend.”
Like B’léza and Évora, living in the busy city of Mindelo, Armando’s life was marked by the ships that disembarked at the port.
“In the 1960s we met people from all over the world, Russian, Japanese, Greek. We would go over to the ports to earn money to survive. We would try to learn their music, so that we could play it when they arrived. Even if we didn’t always know how to play it properly … they would love it.
“I would take foreigners around in the evenings, we would play in bars – and play all sorts of instruments.
“Playing for foreigners was a way we found to make a living.”
Years later, Armando reunited with Évora – joining the band that recorded the song “Sodade” for the album “Miss Perfumado”. He travelled with Évora on the world tour for the acclaimed album – performing mornas from across Cape Verde.
“Initially it was only meant to be eight shows, then we ended up performing 32.
“I saw it with my own eyes. When we played in Japan, I remember seeing people crying in the audience. Most people had no idea what the lyrics meant, but somehow the feeling was there.
“Cesária carried the feeling of her own life when she sang … all of us, when we execute something with dignity, we feel our sorrows too. So, music feeds my soul, it’s my form of therapy.”
Mariana: songs of Sodade
The song “Sodade” – that João sang for Mariana that day in 1954 – was eternalised in the voice of Cesária Évora, and became a universal anthem for Cape Verdeans throughout the world. It was seen to symbolise the struggles endured during colonisation, epitomising the story of the nation and questioning the legacy of people being forced to leave for work, many never to return.
After João serenaded her, Mariana set sail on a ship that took nine days to reach São Tomé from her hometown of São Nicolau. “I was very sad to leave,” she remembers.
“I was there for 10 years and 4 months. The pay was very little, it was the time of the Portuguese,” she says with a gentle laugh over the phone from the house she lives in with her grandson.
“I was so happy to return to Cape Verde, to be back in my land, in my country.”
She returned from São Tomé a decade later, but Mariana never saw João again. Recently she found out he had passed. She continues to treasure the song Sodade, despite preferring the original version serenaded to her.
“When I remember that song today, my heart is happy, it reminds me of a time when I was younger,” she says.
Despite never meeting Mariana, the song Sodade carries a personal meaning for Armando, too.
“When people were embarking to São Tomé, we would take them to the boats, serenading them. It was our tradition, people would get together and everyone would play, often improvising songs too. I did it a few times, it was incredibly sad, because we were taking all those people to that boat. They would be given a mat to lay down and people would be placed in the ship’s hold, you know?
“My sister used to play music too, but one day she ran away from home and went looking for a better life.
“They would make these contracts, and she was given some money, a ticket, a mat for the boat and a blanket to cover herself. That’s what that life was like.
“It was tough, they would whip peoples backs, it would happen to everyone. Some people would be made into foremen.
“I stayed home to take care of my mother, my father and my youngest brothers. We would go to school and at 6pm we would pick up our instruments and play by the door of our house. Everybody would pass by and they would be entertained, this was our life.
“My sister came back 16 years later with four children, she never played music again.”
Armando left Cape Verde at 23, in 1968, after being invited by Bana, a renowned Cape Verdean musician known as the “king of morna”. He joined one of Cape Verdes’ best known bands, Voz de Cabo Verde.
Armando was one of the first Cape Verdean musicians to arrive in Lisbon, seven years before Cape Verdean independence. In 1975 the decolonisation movement allowed composers to write without fear of censorship,
5th of July by Manuel d’Novas:
“Brother, we are free and independent/Let me hug you/A hug of a free man / (…)/Cape Verde is free and independent/ free from the chains of colonialism/and of the humiliations we have lived (…)”
Like many Cape Verdeans, Armando faces his experience of leaving Cape Verde with ambivalence.
“When we immigrate, we do it to gain a better life. If everyone had a good life, anywhere in the world, they would never immigrate.
“My mother stayed, and my father too. It has been 52 years since I left.”
Today, Armando is considered an icon of Cape Verdean music, known for his mastery of the violão (guitar). He continues to carry the mornas he grew up listening to, the songs of B’léza and Eugénio Tavares, and the stories from his days playing by the docks.
“I will always miss Cape Verde, and wherever I play, I take Cape Verde with me.”
Mayra Andrade: the music of return
Today, the Cape Verdean diaspora outnumbers the country’s population – with an estimated 1 million people who live abroad and approximately 500,000 on the islands.
The children and grandchildren of Cape Verdeans who settled in the diaspora rarely return. Yet, the experience of migration remains a central part of the lives of those who stay, with many Cape Verdeans living with the help of foreign remittances.
“Cape Verde has 10 islands and we usually say the 11th is the diaspora,” says Mayra Andrade, a Cape Verdean singer and songwriter.
Mayra Andrade is amongst a new generation of artists living abroad whose music bridges contemporary sounds with various ancestral rhythms of Cape Verde.
As a teenager, Mayra was named by Cesária Évora as her likely successor in an interview. The two later become friends.
“It was a blessing for me, because she was so particular. It was very important, and at 18 I did the first part of her concert.
“Cesária left a big gap, and a lot of saudade for what she represented, but also for who she was.”
Évora, along with other morna singers of her generation such as Titina Rodrigues and Celina Pereira, was crucial in influencing a new generation of predominantly women singers.
Mayra Andrade went on to have her own career, playing in venues throughout the world, such as Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall and more recently the Olympia in Paris.
“It would be strange if morna did not influence me … it carries a very deep, Cape Verdean sentiment – and it’s a genre that is common to all the islands. Morna is like a background in my childhood, in my trips, in the fact that I’ve lived abroad.
“Morna is like a vehicle through which we connect to our feelings. It’s like a constant training in the expression of our emotions … We end up printing and giving life to something that may have happened in one day, in an instant – eternalising that feeling.
“It travels throughout decades and it feeds new generations successionally.”
Throughout the years, Mayra’s music has kept a continuity in its storytelling, bringing together both personal narratives and stories of Cape Verde. In a song she wrote at 18, “Vapor di Imigrason“, a Cape Verdean coladera, Mayra sings,
“Oh Sea, Take this morna to them
Tell them that one day our children
will no longer long for their homeland
our mothers will no longer lament their children who departed
on a ship to a foreign land”
The song, Mayra explains, is a tribute to her grandfather, whose boat “Maria Sony” helped Cape Verdeans immigrate.
“We are an immigrated people. We have decades of migration, and we all have families that are dispersed, separated, torn apart – however you look at it.
“There are so many stories of pain … and then there are the children of these immigrants who grow up with an imaginary country of which they inherit a very strong culture, but there is a search for identity, so immigration is something that defines us, even those who never left are in some way related to immigration because they have a piece of them that lives abroad.”
This imaginary country is a reality for many young Cape Verdeans who never meet their homeland. Today, morna gains a new meaning for a youth that learns about the country’s history through the genre, finding familiarity in its stories, which may resonate with those they grow up listening to.
“When I left at 17, I felt incredibly alone – looking for my destiny, and there I realised a lot of things: in our literature, our music, our poetry.”
Mayra believes that music plays a central role in construing a sense of belonging for those abroad, and in inviting young Cape Verdeans to celebrate their roots.
“Younger generations generally grow up with a very strong Cape Verdean culture at home. So, when I play a song, even if they don´t know it, they may hear something that relates to their upbringing. They might think ‘wait, I grew up with this’ or, ‘my mother used to say this…’
“In a way, it is as if music consciously or unconsciously creates that path that brings people back to Cape Verde.”
The desire to return remains a feeling that unites many Cape Verdeans. Mayra explains a common saying in Cape Verde, a line from a morna written by Eugénio Tavares:
“Se ca bado ca ta birado”
“This is a phrase we use a lot to console ourselves every time we have to leave or every time someone leaves… it’s actually written in the roundabout by our airport.
“Essentially it says, how will I return if I never leave? So, in a way, it’s the attempt to see the positive side of departure. It is the idea that we leave, to be able to return again.”