One from the heart

For 30 years, Cesaria Evora has plied the bars of Sao Vicente, singing the sad, poetic songs of Cabo Verde. Now they're even paying her. By Philip Sweeney
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The Independent Culture
I first heard of Cesaria Evora in 1989 from Tim McGirk, The Independent's Madrid correspondent, who covered a Portuguese Prime Ministerial visit to the Cape Verde Islands, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of West Africa, and wrote afterwards of an eccentric bar-room singer, "shaped like a manioc root", performing songs of "sad oceanic beauty", punctuated by weird laughter and slugs of whisky. At this time, Cesaria Evora had accumulated nothing, neither money nor prestige, from 30 years' singing. At home in the run-down little port of Mindelo, on the island of Sao Vicente, she was paid with drinks or small change for a few numbers in one of the bars she trailed around at night, or at a party for officers on a visiting ship. Although her soulful voice was appreciated, she was not considered an equal of the handful of "top" Cape Verdean artists who recorded, guested occasionally on Portuguese TV, and toured Cape Verdean communities in Holland and the US.

Cesaria, however, was poised to become a genuine rags-to-riches story, rocketing past her fellow artists to her country's first case of international stardom. A Cape Verdean ex-musician named Jose da Silva, working on the railways in Paris and moonlighting as a small-time record producer, made two CDs of her work and played them to Francois Post, of the French label Melodie. Intrigued, Post visited Cape Verde in 1990, was knocked out by Cesaria, recorded a new album, Mar Azul, set up some concerts at the New Morning jazz club and started spreading the word among media contacts. The concerts sold out, and a cult began. Two years later, a follow-up album, Miss Perfumado, hit the jackpot, with mainstream radio and TV play, leading to sales of 200,000 copies and a mini-season at the Olympia, the pinnacle of French pop venues. Across Europe, Japan and the US, the pattern was repeated.

At the peak of Miss Perfumado's success, I was on Sao Vicente, one of the nine chunks of inhospitable volcanic rock composing the little state, trying to get to see her perform. This should have been straightforward, despite the logistical problems of the journey (Cape Verde is only a six- hour flight from Europe, but the international airport is on the island of Sal - or, more accurately, is the island of Sal, where you have to spend the night). Cesaria at that time came with her own logistical problems, however. She was to star at a "Noite Especial" at the Porto Grande Hotel, Mindelo's smartest - a small, even more dysfunctional version of the old Havana Hilton, for a new audience of the Mindelo bourgeoisie, eating tapas and mulling over their middle-aged countrywoman's sudden European stardom. During the evening she was to be seen table-hopping, sipping brandies (as she had been, copiously, at home earlier) apparently quite happy. The band struck up, piano, acoustic guitars, clarinet, the little ukulele- like cavaquinho - and various warm-up singers came and went. Then, a very long pause and, finally, an announcement around midnight that, due to domestic problems, Cesaria wouldn't perform. Somebody told me she'd ambled off across the square barefoot a few minutes earlier.

The following afternoon, sitting on her bed, peeling the wrapper off another pack of SG cigarettes while a noisy kitchen full of visitors tucked into her catchupa stew, Cesaria explained: "I brought along my families and friends and there was no table for them, so I left. There was a Portuguese TV crew there to film me, and they were pretty mad, but what have they ever done for me?" Cesaria is terse and blunt on all subjects, including the decade she gave up singing and looked after her mother. "I was fed up of getting nowhere."

Nevertheless, the reasons for her fame seem, in retrospect, clear. "I started singing as a child, I never studied and I just sing naturally, from the heart," she says. The genre she specialises in, the sad poetic morna of Cape Verde, is distinctive and atmospheric, and Cesaria's voice, mellow and simple, is perhaps its loveliest vehicle, precisely the lack of artifice making her so effective.

The morna came into existence around the end of the 19th century, a product primarily of the Portuguese side of Cape Verdean genealogy, specifically the sad Lisbon fado, and, to a lesser extent, of the African side of the islands, which were uninhabited prior to the simultaneous arrival of the Portuguese and the Guinean slaves in the mid 1500s.

Cape Verdean songs distil Cape Verdean experience and history, and the flavour of this distillate, like the sugar cane alcohol grog all too avidly consumed on the islands, is powerfully bitter-sweet. Sodade is the key emotion, Cape Verdean Creole for the Portuguese saudade, or nostalgia, longing - for home often, because, like the Portuguese, the Cape Verdeans are great departers, with more living outside the country than within. They are also legendary sailors, amazingly since inter-island ferries demonstrate Cape Verdean civilians to be legendarily un-seaworthy, ashen- faced, vomiting and wailing their way across choppy Atlantic straits. None the less, Verdean whalers founded the big American community around New Bedford and faded whaling prints are still occasional features of Cape Verdean interior decor. Also, glimpsed from time to time on forgotten walls, are Fifties and Sixties recruiting posters for cacao pickers in the former Portuguese African territories of Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, which induce a frisson of recognition if you've listened to Cesaria's version of the song "Sodade", with its hauntingly matter-of-fact lyric, "You write to me, I'll write to you / you forget me, I'll forget you", and its reference to the "boat to Sao Tome".

The boat is the old steamer Ernestina (also featured on the Cape Verdean 200 escudo note), which plied between Mindelo and Sao Tome, transporting tattered wage-slave emigrants, propelled by the terrible droughts and famines of the Forties and Fifties, which so marked Cape Verdean collective memory and the lyrics of the mornas. Cesaria's brother took the boat to Sao Tome and she remembers singing at the serenatas, eve-of-departure street parties for the newly indentured pickers. "We had no serenata for my brother, though -he had to go secretly because my mother stopped him once."

One of the fascinations of the morna is its combination of tradition and absolute currency. The great composer, B Leza, Cesaria's uncle, may be dead (in poverty, crippled by tuberculosis and working in a slaughterhouse) but other top morna writers are still strolling the cobbled colonial streets of Mindelo, pursuing their day-jobs as port workers or desalination engineers. Manuel D'Nova, Mindelo's harbour pilot, will talk of his new moralising mornas, inveighing against corruption and abortion. Now, young composers send cassettes of their new songs to Cesaria in hope. "I prefer the old songs, though, they're stronger," she says.

Cesaria, the morna's new international figurehead, has had her life transformed at the age of 55. She still pushes through the swing doors of Tchuna's Cafe Royal, her handbag stuffed with notes to buy rounds, she has a big new blue Ford, a young relation as driver, and is awaiting the keys to a new house, albeit in the street she grew up in. She still finds it hard to forget the past. I met her backstage in Boston last week, on a tour that proceeds to New York, to play a private engagement for a fashionable architect who has hired a theatre to entertain his friends. So, you're in demand from society now, I remark. "I always was," riposted Cesaria. "They just never paid me before." Of her music Cesaria still says very little, which is fine because it speaks for itself, albeit in Portuguese Creolen

Cesaria Evora: tonight, 7.45pm, QEH, London SE1 (0171-960 4242. Her new album `Mar Azul' is released on BMG later this month