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How a shipwreck influenced Cape Verde's cosmic-disco explosion

@SamWKemp

In the pale lazuline waters of Cape Verde, on the westernmost point of the African continent, lies the rusted shell of a shipwreck that indirectly influenced one of the most surprising musical movements in history. 

It all began on a peaceful morning in 1968, a moment when a cargo ship carrying the latest Korg and Moog synthesizers set off from Baltimore Harbour. The expedition was charged with transporting the synthesizers to Brazil, where they were to be exhibited. Moog and Korg were already well-established names in North America and Europe, but the same could not be said of countries south of the equator. All of the major players were keen to take part, including the likes of Rhodes, Moog, Farfisa, Hammond and Korg, and they were all equally excited to show off their latest synthesizers to the promising South American market. Every passenger on board the boat assumed that the journey from Baltimore to Rio De Janeiro was going to be, at worst, a little mundane. The route had been travelled many times, and the ship’s crew knew it better than the names of their own children. Why, then, did that same ship fail to arrive in Brazil? Why did it and its cargo vanish so inexplicably?

Months later, the answer came in the form of a shipwreck spotted off the coast of West Africa. The American vessel had been caught in a storm and now lay shattered and crewless in the shallow waters off São Nicolau island, Cape Verde. In 1968, the region was still under Portuguese control, so when the locals discovered the towering shipwreck glistening in the heat of the morning sun, it quickly became the subject of a police investigation. But what the police found when they began exploring the wreck was far from what they’d been told to expect. There were no injured crew members, no desperate pleas for rescue, only silence and three or four containers holding some of the most cutting-edge synthesizers on the market. 

In the midst of a clean up and subsequent investigation, the haul was promptly requisitioned by the authorities and locked away in a local church. It seemed that the synths would simply be kept until the Americans came back for them – they would be no use to a community without electricity, after all. But the intellectual and anti-colonial revolutionary, Amílcar Cabral, had a different idea. He suggested that the synthesizers be divided equally amongst all the local schools in the archipelago. The morning after, Cabral’s vision had been enacted, and Cape Verde’s youth woke up to find themselves the proud possessors of some of the most exciting music technology on the planet.

When these students came of age decades later, a cosmic-disco explosion swept through Cape Verde. The archipelago’s youth had spent the intervening years tinkering with their Korgs and Moogs, working out how they functioned and then eventually using them to perform the traditional music of their island. Througout the 1970s and ’80s, a unique form of disco emerged from Cape Verde. It blended the traditional morna, coladeira, and funaná folk dances with the choppy guitars of Parliament, churning Latin rhythms, and explosive synth solos imbued with the trills and ornaments of the archipelago’s traditional songs. The proliferation of cosmic disco across Cape Verde coincided with the nation’s independence movement. The unique musical style provided the soundtrack to a period of rebellion against the authoritarian Portuguese regime. The morna, coladeira, and funaná folk dances were outlawed by the Portuguese government, as was anything resembling cosmic disco. However, in 1975, Cape Verde won its fight for sovereignty.

For decades, very few people knew about the incredible music pioneered by Cape Verde’s Moog-wielding youth. Now, over 50 years later, the exhilarating sound of Cape Verde’s cosmic disco scene is finally being celebrated on a global scale. In 2016, Analog Africa revealed a short documentary tracing its roots, as well as a compilation album featuring some of the most infectious songs from the period. 

The label’s founder, Samy Ben Redjeb, set up Analog Africa to showcase the multitude of unique scenes that flourished and continue to flourish throughout the continent. With the popularisation of ‘world music’ in the 1980s, much of the music coming out of Africa was rolled into one. But, as Redjeb explains, world music “is just a bullshit word. People are starting to understand that every African region has different sounds and styles of music. We’re starting to break that all down.” Space Echo – The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde is a tribute to one of Africa’s most singular artistic movements, a movement that had the power to overthrow an entire government — and it all started on a peaceful day in 1967.

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