Cesaria Evora has been likened to some of the world's greatest vocalists: Billie Holiday, Amalia Rodrigues and Edith Piaf. While such comparisons evoke the Cape Verdean singer's stature and authority, they don't prepare one for the experience of hearing her unique alto: smoother than Holiday, mellower than Rodrigues, more mournful than Piaf. For almost three decades, Evora wasn't heard outside the bars in her native Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente, just off the coast of Senegal. It wasn't until 1988, when she signed with the Lusafrica label and recorded an album in France, that Evora's fame spread beyond Africa's shores to Europe. Now, with her ninth album Voz D'Amor just released on the Bluebird label, the 62-year-old "Barefoot Diva" has lifted Cape Verde's traditional mornas and coladeras onto a world stage.
Cape Verde, a 10-island archipelago along the route of Portugal's old slave trade, is awash in musical influences. A former Portugese colony, the islands received direct influence from Brazil and Europe, and formulated their own diverse musical idioms out of indigenous and imported elements.
As Evora told The Independent in a recent phone interview from France, speaking through her Creole-Portugese translator: "It's all one country, but each island has its own traditions. For example, [residents of Sao Vicente] will listen more to morna and coladera. Then there's funana, batuque; in one of the islands they play the waltz, contradanza, different types of music. You have to go there, so you can believe it!" Without hesitation, she adds a personal invitation: "I'll take you if you want. You can come to my house. Think about it. If you have a husband, you can bring him too."
Besides traditional Cape Verdean music, Evora listened to a variety of international singers growing up in the '50s and '60s. "I've always listened to music from all over the world," she says. "Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznevour, from Brazil a singer named Angela Maria, Caetano Veloso, Rodrigues from Portugal, and also the famous musician from Cuba called Compay Segundo. I was a big fan of his, and we recorded together [on Cafe Atlantico]."
The affinity to Cuban son and danzon is audible in her preference for acoustic arrangements featuring guitar, clarinet, violin, and a smaller type of guitar known as a cavaquinho. And though Voz D'Amor has three Cubans in the band--violinist Julian Corrales Subida, cellist Daniel Rodriguez and bassist Lazaro "El Fino" Rivero--what Cuban and Cape Verdean music share is a sensibility, more than any one rhythm in particular. Evora says that analogies between morna and fado, the blues, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music are justified; like nerves reacting to the same stimuli on different parts of the body, they are all cultural reactions to a similar or shared history of colonialism, slavery, and survival.
"The sentiment, the feeling is the same. We talk about a lot of the same subjects. Fado, blues, morna...they are very, very similar. They talk about a little bit of love, a little bit of sadness," Evora says. "We talk about a number of things in our music and it is very similar, love, suffering, racism, different issues that we talk about. So those are the similarities. We hear them in other music too."
Such archetypal themes are the thread running through her songbook, which she selects from both traditional standards and new compositions. "My producer gives me a list of songs, I listen to the words, and we always agree, but the final decision always lies with me. If the words touch me in any way, and I really like the lyrics, then we go from there." Evora's voice connects common themes of isolation, immigration and longing into a bittersweet epic that seems ancient and seamless.
In fact, her musical gift didn't come out of nowhere. Evora's father played guitar and violin and a brother played saxophone as she was growing up, and her uncle, B. Leza, was a beloved guitarist and songwriter whose works are still performed by many Cape Verdean artists. Cesaria has recorded several of his tunes, from the melancholy "Traz D'Horizonte" on her 1988 debut La Diva Aux Pieds Nus, to the hauntingly beautiful "Isolada" which leads off Voz D'Amor.
Part of Evora's legend is that she always performs bare-footed, a symbol of her solidarity with ordinary Cape Verdeans, whose hard work is also celebrated on the new album. "Amdjer de nos terra" ("A woman of our land") is a love letter to Cape Verde's matriarchs, who hold families and communities together while men are often compelled to emigrate in search of work. If this is music of the left behind, it is also deeply at peace with its roots, much like Evora herself, who returns home between tours. "I still live in Cape Verde, that's where home is, my roots are there, my family and everything. There's a lot of beautiful places in other countries, you can make a lot of money, but I still live there," she says.
In her hometown of Mindelo, Evora remains a godmother of sorts to young singers and musicians. Dakar native Bouna Ndiaye, local producer and host of "Bonjour Africa" on WNCU 90.7 FM (airing Sundays 4-6 p.m.), reminisced about visiting Cape Verde in the early 1990s. He told The Independent about Evora's old stomping grounds, a nightclub owned by Chico Serra known as the Piano Bar, just a short distance from Evora's house, where parties typically extend through the night. "It's a neighborhood place where all these young singers and musicians who want to have a chance to have a gig with Cesaria would go," Ndiaye says. "It was the legendary port for Cesaria's nocturnal wanderings."
About two thirds of the million or so Cape Verdeans live abroad, and Evora says her touring experience confirms this: "Cape Verdeans are everywhere. The only place I've been where I haven't seen Cape Verdeans is Japan. But there must be some there too, I just didn't see them."
As for the surge in her popularity with audiences abroad, she compares it to her own early exposure to American popular music. "We have always listened to music that we didn't really understand. There are no frontiers with music. If the music is good, if you like the voice, and the melody, and if the musicians are good, then you don't have to understand. Music works wonders like that."
Having collaborated with Compay Segundo and Caetano Veloso, Evora now says the one musical idol she would most like to meet lives in Miami: "Julio Iglesias. From a long time ago, before I started singing abroad, I always liked him. When I listen to him, I feel like drinking some port wine and relaxing, his voice is very soothing. I'm going to try as hard as I can, I have to see him this time in Miami."
Her new tour includes a stop at UNC's Hill Hall this Tuesday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. "We are so blessed to have Cesaria here, to present the culture, it represents a great deal to us," says Ndiaye. "And also to give some source of motivation to some young singers. She is the godmother to everybody. She is just a nice person, she is. Fame did not change her at all."
Sylvia Pfeiffenberger can be reached at email@example.com.