Christopher Columbus, Lewis & Clarke, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan; as I name these people, something they have in common comes to mind: they, along with many others, left indelible marks in history because of their legendary exploration ventures and remarkable discoveries. Although commerce and geo-political advancement were the initial drivers for most exploration efforts, they also brought previously unknown cultures together, creating new experiences in terms of technology, food, history, language, and arts.
Growing up in Southern Venezuela, day-to-day surroundings had a rich and colorful blending of African, European, and Caribbean cultures, the direct product of explorations and discoveries of past centuries. I was a ten year-old child when one day I heard some contagious, harmonious and rhythmical music coming from my next-door-neighbor’s back yard. I could not immediately see what or who was making the music, but the sound of drums, cuatros, percussion instruments and voices were just fascinating. I approached that side of the fence and, to my surprise, my childhood friend Suley was there, kind of expecting me. He said, “Hey, come over, my mother’s family and friends are here, playing calypso.” I ran back to my mother and grand-mother and said “Suley’s family and friends are playing calypso in his backyard, can I go?” They said yes and I was delighted! For me, it was the first live music performance I ever experienced. The songs and the music were upbeat and happy, with lyrics skillfully mixing Spanish and Patuá. We all sang and danced familiar calypso songs. Suley and I even took turns playing one of the small drums and some of the percussion instruments.
Now, calypso is a music genre originally from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Patuá is a Creole language, a mixture of native Indian, English, Portuguese and French. At this point, you may be asking, “… what is the connection between Calypso and Venezuela?” In the 1850’s, explorers discovered large gold deposits along the Yuruari River, about 170 miles southeast of my home city. The town of El Callao, Spanish for “The Silent One”, was founded shortly after. The lure of gold and the supporting jobs it created brought people from all over the world. Along with them, they brought their culture, languages, music, foods, and skills on all sort of trades. Calypso was brought to El Callao by Trinidadians in the late 1800’s. Since them, it has evolved to have its own distinctive sound, from the primitive rhythms of the first Calypsos to elaborate song-stories narrating local events using colorful tones and sounds. My connection with that place stands from my great-grand-father John Baptiste from Dominica, who along with his wife, Louise Robinson Baptiste from Trinidad. They both decided to leave their native lands to explore other venues, finally settling and starting a family in El Callao in the early 1900’s. Today, Calypso music can be heard across the Caribbean, but the fact is that original Calypso started in Trinidad, with only one unique variant found in El Callao.
Over the years I have always kept a welcoming mind to all sorts of music. For me, the Internet offers the opportunity to explore and discover hidden musical treasures from all over the world. During one of those exploring sessions, I stumbled upon what I consider the best interpretations of a Latin song called Besame Mucho, or “Kiss me much.” The singer was this short lady with such a sultry and melodious voice, performing barefoot before a huge live audience. The musicians performing along were just great: piano, percussions, alto saxophone, violin, and a 12-string guitar. I had discovered Cesária Évora, the “barefoot diva”, as she is known all over the world. She was singing in Spanish, but her Portuguese accent was a clear give away. This must be a Brazilian music group I first thought, but the rhythm, harmony and instrumentation are not what you would expect to be. It did not take long to realize that Cesária Évora was not Brazilian, not even from the American continent. She was from Cape Verde, an island country in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Africa, opposite to Mauritania and Senegal. The official language of Cape Verde is Portuguese, but most people speak Cape Verdean Creole, a language based on Portuguese with West-African influences. That explained the Portuguese accent I heard! The main discovery event came a few days later when I played a version of the song called Africa Nossa (Portuguese for Our Africa) sang by Cesária Évora and Ismaël Ló, a popular singer from Senegal. Hearing this song felt like re-discovering a hidden treasure after so many years. The rhythm, instrumentation, tempo, lyric structure, sequence, and even the language, a mixture of Portuguese, Senegalese and French, sounded so much like Calypso! I experienced some of the same amazing feelings of wonder and discovery I had many years ago when I heard that improvised Calypso music group at my neighbor’s. That song not only sounded like Calypso, but it felt like Calypso. Could it be possible that a connection exists between Cape Verde, Senegal, and Trinidad? During the many years of the slavery trade, blacks from West Africa were brought to America, the Caribbean and Brazil, with Cape Verde as a main trade center. Would that explain some of the origins of the Calypso music? My exploration is not over yet. As I delve into the Senegalese, Cape Verdean and Trinidadian history and culture, along with my own family history, I am certain that a palpable common thread is linking all these wonderful musical treasures together.
I encourage you to explore your own surroundings and family history. I am sure there are treasures of your own awaiting to be re-discovered. T.S. Elliott once said something I think is appropriate as we come to the conclusion of this visit together. He said “… we are never cease from exploring, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive were we began and to know the place for the first time.