Monday 19 December 2011


We first met Cesaria Evora in June, 1997. The article below was published that same year by Inter Press Service (IPS).

Cesaria Evora © Youri Lenquette / Lusafrica
BRUSSELS - They call her the 'Barefoot Diva' because she always performs without shoes. But sitting in her dressing room before her appearance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts here, Cesaria Evora is wearing a sedate pair of black house slippers.

Everything else about her is diva-like, from the long, burgundy-coloured nails and many gold bangles, to the flowing patterned blouse. At 56, Evora is enjoying success that took a long time to come her way and she seems a little amused by all the attention she is receiving in Europe.

Evora is acknowledged to be one of the most remarkable singers from Africa and, as Bob Marley did for reggae and Jamaica, she has put the music of Cape Verde firmly on the map. Marley actually was one of her favourite artists, along with Edith Piaf, Salif Keita and Manu Dibango.

"Singers like Marley don't come along very often," Evora says, and the same thing could be said about her. She has a voice that makes people stop and listen to her songs, even if they don't understand Portuguese or Kriolu, the local Creole language.

Critics have called the voice 'powerful', 'extraordinary', 'pure' and 'gutsy'. Whatever you call it, Evora's singing has a remarkable effect on her audience. During her concert in Brussels, it made at least one grown man cry.

Evora's repertoire is based on the 'morna', Cape Verde's national music which is characterized by sad, poetic lyrics and slow guitar- accompanied melodies.

Evora's uncle, Francisco Xavier da Cruz (aka B. Leza), was a renowned morna composer and her father also wrote music. She says she doesn't write her own lyrics because she considers herself foremost an 'interpreter' of both new and traditional songs. Her voice completes the poetry of the morna.

The back cover of 'Cabo Verde' with Evora's autograph
Evora started singing in her teens at the few bars of her hometown Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente. She captivated the locals and was soon the rage on the local radio station. Working with accomplished clarinetist Luis Morais, she dreamed of making a career from singing, but hardships in her personal life and the poverty of Cape Verde got in the way and she stopped performing.

In 1988, however, when she was 47 years old, a French producer of Cape Verdean origin, Jose Da Silva, invited her to visit Paris to record an album. The album was called La Diva aux pieds nus (The Barefoot Diva), and some of the songs from it became hits in the Cape Verdean community in France. That October Evora gave her first performance in Paris before a small audience.

Two years (and two albums) later, she released Miss Perfumado, to rave reviews. For many, she was a new Billie Holliday - rare voice, hard life and a passion for alcohol and cigarettes. Within months her concerts were sell-outs and the album went on to sell more than 200,000 copies in France alone.

"It all started with Miss Perfumado," she reminisced. "To have success at this age is something I never expected but it was that album that launched things."

The title song is a haunting, melancholy ballad which was composed by her uncle. Whenever she sings it, the audience remains deathly silent until long after the final note. Then the applause breaks out.

Following the release of Miss Perfumado, Evora went on a global tour, performing in Europe, North and South America and Japan. In Brazil, famous singers such as Caetano Veloso welcomed her as one of their own. The music of Brazil has in fact influenced that of Cape Verde, which Evora laughingly refers to as ‘”little Brazil”.

"We like Brazilian music very much," she says. "There is a lot of similarity because we use the same instruments."

The front cover of 'Cabo Verde'
As success came, Evora decided to give up alcohol ("I used to warm up my voice with liquor, now it's with coffee") but she continues to smoke cigarettes. Since 1994, she has been signed to the international record company B.M.G. through Jose Da Silva's Lusafrica label, and she has released three more albums. The latest, Cabo Verde, came out this year.

"It's more in line with the traditional music of Cape Verde," she says. "The musicians are also new and I have people who are well-known in different areas also participating, such as the clarinetist James Carter."

The clarinet and saxophone do play a big part in her live shows although the music is driven by strings - the guitar, bass, and the cavaquinho (a small four-stringed instrument) - complemented by the piano. (END/1997) – Alecia McKenzie.

Cesaria Evora died on 17 December 2011 in Cape Verde. Her music lives on.