How music shaped a Cabo Verdean community in Rotterdam
No migrant community in the Netherlands wrote as many songs about the place they migrated to as the Cabo Verdean one. PhD candidate Seger Kersbergen studied their Rotterdam nightlife and the songs their musicians wrote about the city. He explains how these describe their nightlife and daily lives. Read and listen.
Cabo Verdean music by Voz de Cabo Verde (1969) to listen to while reading this article.
The history of the Cabo Verdean community in Rotterdam began with the arrival of the first sailors in the 1950s and took off in the 1960s. This was related, amongst others, to the struggle for independence in Cabo Verde. Many fled the country because of poverty or repression, or to avoid military service. In later years they began to settle in Rotterdam and work on dry land. Their families followed them in the 1970s. Today’s Cabo Verdean community in Rotterdam is estimated at 20,000 to 30,000.
Cabo Verdean record label
The Cabo Verdean nightlife initially revolved around existing bars and nightclubs in the city. But the Cabo Verdean record label Morzbeza Records was set up in Rotterdam by João Silva as early as 1965. He also started the band Voz de Cabo Verde, the voice of Cabo Verde. ‘João Silva was tasked by the leader of the fight for independence against Portugal with promoting and preserving the Cabo Verdean culture in the diaspora,’ says Kersbergen.
On the other hand, the band was involved in life in Rotterdam and made Latin American music because they performed at the La Bonanza Latin American nightclub. This club became an important meeting place for Cabo Verdeans. Later on, parties were held at other spots in the city. ‘The nightlife definitely played a part in creating a community and sense of connection, and it contributed to a collective sense of self,’ says Kersbergen.
Cabo Verdean music about Rotterdam
Various songs are about that nightlife and the everyday lives of the Cabo Verdeans. For his research Kersbergen studied 80 songs that mention or are about Rotterdam. ‘That is quite unique. No other migrant communities in the Netherlands have written so many songs about the place they migrated to.’
One of these songs is Lucy d’Nho Mrgode van Bana, which is from 1980.
(Translated into English)
What nationality are you?
I am a child of Cabo Verde.
What have you done since you are here?
Walking in circles looking for a job.
Let’s go, let’s go,
Dance in Martinique
Don’t you worry.
Virgin Mary will solve it.
What the songs often have in common is that they are about working life or the frustration of being unable to find work. ‘You also hear that in this song,’ says Kersbergen. ‘What is also interesting is how they sing at the end of the song “Live your life, but keep your mouth shut. You’ve already got a job.”’ It’s about illegal migration and illegal work. So have fun but keep quiet and stay in the background. The music also serves as a moral compass for how you should behave.’
Strong collective memory
What is striking about the songs is the mention of specific spots in Rotterdam. The lyrics aren’t about going to a bar but to Martinique, a nickname for La Bonanza, or another bar or nightclub where Cabo Verdeans meet up. These spots are even mentioned in recent tracks, such as Bolo Ku Pudim by Nelson Freitas ft. Djodje, Eddy Parker & Loony Johnson from 2019. ‘The songs create a map of the city,’ Kersbergen explains.
(Translated into English)
I fell in love
With a blonde at Vanella, pretty.
I decided to stay with her,
My passport expired.
Nelson Freitas comes from Rotterdam and is hugely popular in Portugal, Cabo Verde, Angola and Mozambique in particular. ‘Bolo Ku Pudim means cake with custard and is a bit of a random title. In the song Freitas sings that he is stopped by the police for an alcohol test and finally ends up at “Vanella”, a kind of Cabo Verdean district close to the Van Nelle factory grounds in Rotterdam, where he falls in love with a blonde girl.’
In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, several Cabo Verdean parties were held near the Van Nelle factory every weekend. ‘It’s funny how an artiste who hasn’t actually lived in Rotterdam for years still refers to the Rotterdam nightlife in a collaboration with other international artistes. That shows how strong the collective memory is.’
History incorporated into today’s nightlife
The Cabo Verdean nightlife played such a big role in the community that to this day parties are held that hark back to the past. ‘The nightspots from then no longer exist but the parties are held at other spots in the city. SunClub Reunion, for instance, which is reminiscent of the Sun Club, a nightclub in the Van Nelle district. The history is incorporated into today’s nightlife.’
Seger Kersbergen will defend his dissertation on 16 February.
Text: Dagmar Aarts
Image editor: Fien Leeflang
Banner photo: La Bonanza nightclub. Photo: Rotterdam archive