Soulful, delicious and sad as the sea

Cesaria Evora: African queen of the Latin blues.
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The Independent Culture

Paris is giddy at the thought of her appearance. Madonna has twice requested she sing – at her wedding and birthday – and been spurned. Single-handedly she's put her tiny nation on the musical map. And all of this achieved while barefoot and puffing on strong cigarettes. Yet Cesaria Evora appears not in the least fazed. While the French media buzz around her she answers questions like a stoic. We're introduced and she drolly inquires as to how her fame is coming along in England.

Well, I reply, more and more people are aware of you but it's not like France (where each album sells over 300,000) or Portugal or Brazil or the US; Britain's bottom of the class. What with the Stereophonics and Geri Halliwell, who needs the kind of music – soulful, beautiful, deliciously exotic – that Evora makes?

Cesaria Evora is a world music superstar. From living in a dirt-floor hut to selling out Paris's Zenith stadium is a long journey and Evora has traversed it like few others. Born on Cape Verde, an archipelago of islands 600kms off the coast of Senegal, she grew up in an orphanage and sang in bars from her teens. Cape Verde was Portugal's most impoverished colony and when granted independence in 1975 most of the bars vanished with the colonials.

The opportunity to represent Cape Verde in Portugal in 1985 saw Evora travelling to Europe for the first time. She was then 44, a grandmother. An instant hit, she's now hailed as one of the world's great singers.

"I'm pleased that people like my singing," says Evora, "but for a long time I found it impossible to make any money. It was only when Jose da Silva came into my life that things became good."

Da Silva was a Cape Verdean emigré who worked for the French railway system. He witnessed Evora in Portugal and immediately set up the LuisAfrica label specifically to record her. A dumpy, cross-eyed, middle-aged black woman would not appear an easy artist to sell to the French but da Silva recognised in Evora a great Latin vocal stylist.

The French media and public did when she released Miss Perfumado in 1992. Here she sings 13 Cape Verdean mornas. Mornas are melancholic ballads played on string instruments, and in Evora's hands they sparkle with a bewitching beauty that has converted listeners way beyond the Portuguese-speaking world.

"Morna is the sound of Cape Verde," says Evora. "It's our traditional music and I sing of many things that matter to Cape Verdeans: emigration, the sea, being away from those you love."

Just as Brazilian musicians built samba and bossa nova out of their shared African and Portuguese heritage, Cape Verdeans created morna. It's become Africa's equivalent of the blues, which may be why Evora's been compared to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.

"People try to compare me to a lot of famous singers," states Evora disapprovingly, "but my style is shaped not by listening to Americans but music from Portugal and Africa. Also, we Cape Verdeans understand Brazilian and Cuban music. Still, I like other singers – even the Beatles and Elton John. He's English, isn't he?"

He certainly is, and one's almost surprised he didn't turn up on Evora's new CD Sao Vicente Di Longe as she's joined by everyone from a Cuban string section through Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso, to American blues-rock legend Bonnie Raitt. The album is Evora's lushest – it's divinely romantic – and demonstrates how far she and producer da Silva have taken the morna.

"We don't change the morna," she says. "We just make it richer."

That evening's performance finds 6,000 Parisians – black, white, and a large gay contingent –held in the palm of Evora's hand. Earlier we'd spoken about the UK radio's phobia towards music not sung in English. Evora chuckled and lit another cigarette.

"When I'm in England I'm not interested in meeting the Queen. I would like to meet Elton John, though. Do you know where he lives?"

Cesaria Evora: Royal Festival Hall, SE1 (020 7960 4242), 13 July. 'Sao Vicente Di Longe' is released by BMG