The simply elegant singer Cesaria Evora was born 60 years ago in the Cape Verdean coastal town of Mindelo. While she has been singing for four decades, Evora's recording career didn't go international until the late '80s. Since then, the Barefoot Diva (so called because she performs without shoes) has wowed the world music community with songs of her homeland, where it is eternally summer. Though the music sways with the warmth and gentleness of the tropical breezes of Cape Verde, the lyrical content is not so dreamy. Evora's songs tell of a place colonized by the Portuguese, used as a center for the slave trade and then left to be ravaged by poverty.
On her latest CD, Café Atlantico, Evora's sad but strong voice, which has justly been compared to that of Edith Piaf, is complimented by the usual piano, guitar and cavaquinho (a small guitar), as well as strings, a punchy horn section and Cuban-born players. The added musical baggage makes some sense--ships from Brazil, Argentina and the Caribbean left a cultural imprint on Cape Verde--but the strings do take the music away from the simplicity that made the CD Miss Perfumado such an enchanting recording. Evora's voice and language (she sings in her native Creole), however, are still mesmerizing, and songs like the love ballad "Desilusao Dum Amdjer" and the title cut, which is about the resiliency of Cape Verdean natives, recapture the truth of her folk music beginnings.
South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba is as sophisticated as Evora is simple. And the 68-year-old Makeba has been in the American pop music consciousness much longer: She won a 1959 Grammy for her duet set with Harry Belafonte, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, and had a hit single, "Pata Pata," here in 1967.
On Homeland, Makeba reprises her rousing hit as "Pata Pata 2000" in a duet with vocalist Zenzi Lee. The release moves easily between the call-and-response vocal style supported by lilting guitars and rich percussion of South African pop numbers with Makeba singing in her native tongue, and feel-good songs like "'Cause We Live for Love" and "Amaliya," which are essentially American pop tunes sung in English. A global traveler (Makeba lived in exile from South Africa for 30 years because of her political beliefs), the singer is adept at spreading out, and her Americanized songs recall the soft soul of Roberta Flack. The most starkly beautiful cut on the disc, however, is Makeba's version of the Congolese tribute to a young soccer singer who died in his prime, "Liwawechi." And the acoustic "Umhome," the story of a young bride whose groom falls for her cousin, taps into the jazz ambience of a young Nina Simone.
The dignity in both African women's CDs is inspirational without being preachy. Perhaps because they have been allowed to grow and change without abandoning the spirit of their origins, these singers are testaments to how well a popular culture can age without the contrivances of facelifts.