African Paradise – São Tomé & Príncipe

by Jacob on April 16, 2012

So far, my African voyage has taken me up the coast of West Africa, starting in South Africa and passing through Nambia, Angola, Congo and Gabon. After heading essentially due north for the past week, our ship took a sharp left turn along the equator and headed west en route to the former Portuguese colony of São Tomé e Príncipe.

Made up of two main islands about 90 miles apart and a few smaller ones off their coasts, São Tomé e Príncipe turned out to be a magical place that will surely be one of the highlights of the trip. Blessed with incredible and well-preserved natural beauty, colorfully decrepit architecture from the colonial era and warm, welcoming people São Tomé e Príncipe is a place I would love to return to for a lengthier visit.

Best of all, for a country with about 150,000 inhabitants they have wonderful music, most of which I had never heard before I arrived…but more on this later.

Until 1975, São Tomé e Príncipe was a Portuguese colony, and its history was marked by slavery, exploitation and oppression. When the Portuguese first arrived in 1471 and 1472 the islands were uninhabited, save for the many endemic birds and reptiles. The island eventually became a hub for the Portuguese slave trade, a stopping point for most of the slave ships heading from Angola to the New World. Many slaves stayed on the island to work on the local sugar plantations, which produced much of the world’s sugar until they were overwhelmed by competition from the Caribbean. Coffee and cacao became the island’s next big exports, and even though many of the old plantations have been abandoned, São Tome still produces some of the world’s best cacao. Because of its important agricultural role, many workers from Cape Verde, Angola and other Portuguese colonies came to work there, adding to the diversity of the island.

In fact, just as São Tomé is home to rich biodiversity, it is also a cradle of human diversity. For such a small place, it is amazing how many different languages and dialects can be found there. There is of course the Portuguese language and Criolho that are fairly universal, but there are also many regional languages such as Angolar, Forro, Lungiye and others. Some of these languages have died out, but many are still holding on and music has been an important vehicle for maintaining them.

The music of São Tomé e Príncipe reflects this diversity as well, and you can hear echoes of Portuguese, Cape Verdean, Angolan, and Brazilian music as well as Congolese flavors, Afro-Cuban influences and even influences from contemporary Caribbean zouk and reggae. When I asked a local musician about the different rhythms and genres, he reeled off an impressive list: puita, danzo congo, kiná, socopé, bulawé, ussua, djambi, tafua, deixa, tchiloli, san lorenzo, stleva, pio mó deçu and puxa.

Given the small population and the fact that I had only previously heard of two groups from São Tomé, África Negra and Grupo Tempo, I wasn’t expecting to find much else…It turns out, I was in for a surprise.

I had managed to get myself unassigned from any of the group tours, so I was free to wander the city of São Tomé on my own. Because the port is not large enough to dock a ship the size of the National Geographic Explorer, we anchored at sea and traveled to shore via Zodiac, small rubber speedboats. Its lots of fun, bouncing along the sea being splashed by the waves with just a few inches separating you from the ocean.

The local tour operator dropped me off in town, and after exchanging $60.00 USD into 1,080,000.00 São Tomean Dobras I headed off to the nearest record store to see what I could find.

The “record store” was actually a stereo and computer printer repair shop with a small booth in the back. There, a man with a computer would play you a variety of songs and then burn them to a CD-R for about $2.00 a disc. I hung out there for a couple of hours, listening to more music than I ever thought I would hear coming from this small island.

São Tomé Record Store

A São Tomé Record Store = Man With a PC Burning Tracks

Of course, I stocked up on as much África Negra as I could…and all that old school music blasting out the speakers caused much curiosity…who was this strange white dude listening to our music? Apparently, it’s a rare thing for outsiders to express interest in the local music. The tour operator told me he has never once in all of his years working with foreign tourists been asked about the local music. Given how nice much of the music was this really surprised me.

I also discovered some great new sounds both young and old. My favorites were Anguéné, who performs acoustic songs in the Angular language, Constancio Show, a rough-voiced singer who apparently led a troubled life, and the silky Cremilda, whose zouk-flavored song “Saite” is amazing. I actually saw Cremilda credited as a back-up singer on Angolan star Bonga’s latest album. I hope to track down more music from this country soon.

If you speak German (or try Google Translate), check out this amazing guide to ST&P music:

And, if you want to buy any of it, try the Portuguese-based website, Kizomba:

Just to show you how nice the people are in São Tome, when I asked the owner of the music store how to get to a restaurant that had been recommended, he offered to drive me there on his motorcycle. He took me few miles up the coast to Filomar, a lovely, relaxed restaurant overlooking the sea where I sampled the local beer (which has no label, everyone knows what brand it is) and enjoyed some wonderful fish, plantains and vegetables with some delicious local salsa and green sauce.

Lunch in São Tomé

Lunch in São Tomé

After lunch another motorcycle stopped as I walked along the road and asked if I needed a ride back to town. I guess it was obvious I wasn’t from around these parts! Eventually, I found myself at an amazing market filled with shouting vendors, fly-covered fish, festering pig and beef body parts and loud, distorted music blasting out of loudspeakers. It was just my kind of place.

Body Parts in the Mercado Municipal

Various Body Parts in São Tomé's Chaotic Mercado Municipal

When one local asked me to take him with me to the United States I told him, “You already live in paradise. Why would you want to leave this?” Of course, the island is poor, but compared to many African countries we have seen, the quality of life seems very good. The people don’t have much in terms of financial wealth, but they do have ample work opportunities, live in a beautiful and unspoiled setting and enjoy a rich, vibrant culture.

Here are some shots from São Tome:

São Tomé Street Scene

É Proibido Urinar

É Proibido Urinar = Urinating Prohibited

Don't Drink

Anti-Drinking Billboard

African Baby Björn

African Baby Björn

Beautiful House in São Tomé, One of Many

Beautiful House in São Tomé, One of Many

That night we invited Grupo Tempo to perform on the ship. Nezo and Guilherme de Carvalho (the latter a dead ringer for Lionel Ritchie) sang lovely acoustic songs that sounded similar to Cape Verdean or Angolan music, yet had a flavor all their own. Their concert was a huge hit with the passengers, and I’m sure they would do well on the world stage. Apparently, their missing member Oswaldo Santos, who is now living in Portugal, is apparently a virtuoso of the magnificent local guitar style, which reflects influences from Congolese soukous and Caribbean zouk.

Grupo Tempo Performing on Board

Grupo Tempo Performing on Board

The next morning we arrived at Príncipe, which is even smaller and more isolated then São Tome. Príncipe’s landscape is shockingly dramatic, its otherworldly mountains that jut sharply into the sky making me think we were pulling up to a Hollywood set for King Kong, Jurassic Park or the Lost World. The total population is around 6000, and there was scarce evidence of any people at all from the ship.

Príncipe Island

Príncipe Island

Our destination for the day was the Bom Bom Island Resort (http://www.bombomprincipe.com), nestled in one the most beautiful settings I have ever scene. Our task for the day was to relax by the beach, stroll the resorts lengthy boardwalk and enjoy a meal of grilled octopus and pork. With the exception of some Portuguese tourists, few outsiders seem to have discovered this amazing slice of unspoiled paradise. It makes Hawaii and the Caribbean look like Las Vegas in comparison. The only thing missing was my wife to share this romantic setting.

Bom Bom Island Resort

Bom Bom Island Resort, Príncipe

Bom Bom Island Resort

Bom Bom Island Resort, Príncipe

The Intrepid Traveler in Príncipe

The Intrepid Traveler in Príncipe

I will return with her someday, and I recommend you make the effort to get there as well. It’s truly a unique place that for the time you are there will help you forget the hustle and bustle of daily life. The landscape isn’t the only reason to visit – the people, and of course, the music, make it a destination that will leave an impression for years to come. I know it did on me.

 

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