The Mendes Brothers — Ramiro and JoAœo — want to tell the story of the world with music. They come from what may be the perfect place to do it, a scattering of volcanic islands 300 miles east of Africa that for centuries was the crossroads of the worlds.
The Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese discovered them in 1460. The prevailing winds and currents set them on the sailing shortcut between Europe and everywhere else. They were the first tropical colony, a proving ground for New World exploitation of sugar cane, cotton and African slavery. Columbus stopped by, as did the Jamestown settlers on their way west. So did countless merchantmen carrying trade goods and human cargo, ships bound for the southern whaling grounds, and later steamships filling their bunkers with coal before the long trans-Atlantic run.
The population was a mix of Catholic colonists, Jews fleeing the Inquisition, African slaves, Asian merchants — a multicultural mAclange found its destination at a way station. In this racial and cultural crucible a new kind of society was born. From it came a worldwide, if mostly forgotten Creole tradition whose historic influence is embedded in the language of people from Africa to the Caribbean to Macau, China.
The Mendes Brothers' new CD, “Porton de Regresso 1 (The Gate of Return),” is a celebration of that heritage, a rich blend of the traditional and the modern that might be said to echo the music of Brazil, Africa and the Caribbean. “It celebrates the transformation of an imperfect society into something more democratic and forgiving,” Ramiro says, interviewed by telephone. It's a winning sound that has earned the brothers, who have produced more than 40 albums, global recognition and a Grammy nomination.
Their tireless championing of their island and culture brought them in contact with Petersburg-based filmmaker and television star Tim Reid. He met the Mendes Brothers while seeking scoring music for a documentary about Brazil. “I've been going back and forth to Cape Verde since,” Reid says. He's bringing them to the Virginia Museum through the Legacy Media Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to leveraging the power of the media for positive social change. “Culture is not an expense,” Reid says. “It's an asset.”
The African Diaspora remains a tragedy to the generations who suffered during and after slavery, at the same time it has enriched and energized the rest of the world. “We feel a tremendous responsibility in re-engaging the New World, and help it rebuild on our model,” Ramiro says. The key is “morabeza,” he says — a Cape Verdean word he translates as “love.”
“One of the greatest things we have forgotten is the wisdom of traditional cultures,” JoAœo says. But nothing is ever really lost. Some of the Mendes Brothers work has its roots in “bandera” — where African call and response and odd meters played on otherwise banned native drums marked the festival celebrating European Catholic saints, most of whom were Middle Eastern guys whose own people had traditional ties to Africa.
As do we all. According to genetic studies, we're all part of the African Diaspora — it's just a question of who left when.
The Mendes Brothers will appear at the Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Sept. 2 at 7 p.m.. Tickets $25 by phone at 340-1405 or at vmfa.state.va.us.