The melancholy music of Cesaria Evora is Cape Verde's best-known export. Julia Kaminski meets the singer who has 'music in her blood'
Cesaria is two hours late for our interview, but it's not as bad as it sounds. Jose (her agent) and Pascale (from her record company, Lusafrica) are there and they're telling my Danish colleague and me all about Cesaria. In fact, they tell us so much that I start to think I don't need to actually meet her.

But I'm glad when I do, because she is charming. And, when we're through talking, she invites us to dinner the next evening, with the promise that we may go out to the Calypso, one of Cape Verde's best music bars, and one where she herself has sung many times.

Cesaria's voice has put the music of Cape Verde - a small republic off the coast of West Africa - on the map. She sings the melancholy morna, Cape Verde's version of Portugal's saudade, which signifies longing and homesickness. "Music," she says, "comes from daily life and its problems, and the morna is a little sad, but not too much." The morna is what she loves best, she says, because it's in her blood, although she sings some coladeras, which are more upbeat, more tropical.

Cesaria is better known in France and Scandinavia than in Britain. "The barefoot diva" they call her in France - she hasn't worn a pair of shoes in 10 years. But if you have never heard of Cesaria Evora, don't worry, you will soon; a UK tour is planned for later this year, although dates remain uncertain.

In just over 10 years, she has produced seven albums, which have sold more than a million copies worldwide. Her fourth album, Miss Perfumado, sold more than 500,000 copies, and her most recent recording, Cabo Verde, looks as if it may outsell it. She is now choosing songs for her next album, due out next year. Cesaria's following has grown through the "world music" scene, but her success is perhaps surprising given that she sings almost exclusively in Portuguese.

Back home in Cape Verde, Cesaria is queen bee in a house full of people - her mother, her children and grandchildren, cousins, agents, journalists and assorted neighbours.

She is not a great talker, as it happens. Perhaps everything is expressed through her music. Cesaria comes from a family of musicians; her father was a violinist, her brother plays the clarinet, and an uncle was a composer. When she was 16 her lover, Eduardo, discovered her voice and started taking her to bars to sing. "It's thanks to him that I'm known today," she says, "so my son is named after him." Where is Eduardo now? "He is in Holland. He turned out to be a traitor." Cesaria has been heard to say she will never have a man under her roof again.

She reveals that she has had three children by three different fathers; the first left her while she was pregnant, the other two just after she had given birth. "You marry today, you're divorced tomorrow," she quips. Not that she's written men off altogether; she has, she says, three boyfriends - one in France, one in Lisbon, Portugal, and one here in Cape Verde. And if they read this? "It's tough."

In the days when Eduardo led her from bar to bar, did she ever think she that one day she would be famous? "People here seemed to like me, so I always had an idea that if I left Cape Verde, other people would like me, too. But I didn't have the chance for a long time. I was discovered late, but better late than never." In fact, Cesaria was discovered in 1987, at the age of 47, by Jose da Silva in a bar in Lisbon; her huge record sales have all been racked up in the past 11 years.

But the profits matter little to her, Jose says. "She doesn't place much importance on money. Yesterday," he says, "she wanted to buy a Mercedes parked outside. I persuaded her she didn't need it. I mean, she doesn't drive, for one thing. And she already has a car and chauffeur." She is currently having a new house built in town, which will have to house Cesaria and numerous members of her extended family.

Now 58, Cesaria's primary concern is her health, especially as she finds touring exhausting. She is happiest at home in Cape Verde. Like Portugal, one-time ruler of these islands, Cape Verde suffers from enormous emigration; while 400,000 people live in the archipelago, roughly 500,000 Cape Verdeans live abroad. Many singers of Cesaria's generation emigrated, but she stood fast. "I never strived to leave Cape Verde," she says. "Promoting Cape Verdean music is important to me."

Cesaria's lovely voice was nearly lost to the world when, in 1975, she decided to give up singing. The break lasted 10 years. "They were good times," she says, "because I had stopped drinking." Her alcohol intake was legendary, but she insists: "I was never an alcoholic - I only drank in bars, never at home." When Jose first heard her sing, she was drinking a lot. "She was paid in drink. She had it written in her contract: for every concert, a bottle of cognac. She still gets the cognac, but now she gives it away."

This doesn't mean the house is devoid of alcohol, however; the next evening at dinner, we are plied with local grog - a fearsomely strong brew - and a bottle is pressed upon us as we depart. Cesaria leaves us with the grog, and this thought: "I don't believe in dreams, because you get deceived. All I want is to sing, and to die in my house."