Cesaria Evora: Cape Verde's soulful 'barefoot diva'

 

Cesaria Evora, the "barefoot diva", became the ambassadress par excellence of her country, the small West African island group of Cape Verde, and one of the most famous African singers in the world. Her origins were humble and she represented that dying breed typified by the last of the old rural blues singers – an artist who genuinely lived the hard times her songs spoke of.

I first heard of Cesaria Evora in 1989 from the Independent's Madrid correspondent, who covered a Portuguese prime ministerial visit to the country's former colony, and wrote afterwards of an eccentric bar-room singer, "shaped like a manioc root", performing songs of "sad oceanic beauty". At this time Evora had accumulated 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 songs 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 Cape Verdean artistes who recorded, guested occasionally on Portuguese TV and toured Cape Verdean communities in the Netherlands and the US.

Evora was born in 1941 to a part-time musician father and sang sporadically in bars until her late forties, when she tried her luck on a trip to Lisbon. There she was spotted by a Cape Verdean ex-musician named José da Silva, then working on the railways in Paris and moonlighting as a record producer. Da Silva made two CDs of her work and played them to Francois Post, a French music publicist and associate of the influential world music festival of Angoulême. In 1990, Post, knocked out by Evora's atmospheric vocal presence, instigated the recording of a new acoustic album, Mar Azul, and set up some concerts at the New Morning jazz club in Paris. The concerts sold out, and a cult began. Two years later, a follow-up album, Miss Perfumado, hit the jackpot, with major international sales and a mini-season at the Olympia, the pinnacle of French pop venues. In the rest of Europe, Japan and the US, the pattern was soon repeated.

At the peak of Miss Perfumado's success, I attended an Evora concert on Sao Vicente at Mindelo's smartest hotel for an audience of the local bourgeoisie. During the evening the diva was to be seen table-hopping, sipping brandies. 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 that Evora wouldn't be performing. She'd ambled off across the square barefoot a few minutes earlier.

The following afternoon, sitting on her bed, Evora explained. "I brought my family 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?"

The reasons for her fame seem, in retrospect, clear. " I never studied and I just sing naturally, from the heart," she said. The genre she specialised in, the sad, poetic morna, is distinctive and atmospheric and Evora's voice, mellow and simple, was perhaps its loveliest vehicle.

Sodade is the morna's key emotional basis, Cape Verdean Creole for the Portuguese saudade, or nostalgia and longing – for home, often, because Cape Verdeans are great departers. One of Evora's most celebrated songs, called simply "Sodade", encapsulates this world 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 Tomé". This is the old steamer which sailed between Mindelo and Sao Tomé, transporting tattered wage-slave emigrants, propelled by the terrible famines of the 1940s and 50s. Evora's brother took the boat to Sao Tomé and she remembered singing at the eve-of-departure street parties for the newly indentured coffee pickers.

By the end of the 1990s, Evora's life was transformed: a new Ford, a young relation as driver and a grandiose new house, albeit in the street she grew up in. She toured internationally, made a dozen more records, collaborated with world artists such as Salif Keita and Caetano Veloso and received the decoration of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French state. I met her again at a concert in New England, about to play a private engagement for a fashionable architect. So you're in demand from society now? I asked. "I always was," she replied. "They just never paid me before."

Her health became unreliable, however, undermined by her long fondness for whisky and brandy, which she gave up, and cigarettes, which she never did. When she announced her retirement due to heart and respiratory problems a few months ago, she confided in her biographer, Véronique Mortaigne, that the last straw had been a potato crisp dependency she'd acquired, sending her blood pressure and cholesterol levels soaring. She went back to Mindelo to rest, surrounded by her daughters, grandchildren and numerous admirers. Among them was Cape Verde's Minister of Culture, who said: "Cesaria Evora became the universally recognised translation of the words 'Cape Verde'."

Philip Sweeney

Cesaria Evora, singer: born Mindelo, Cape Verde 27 August 1941; three children; died Mindelo 17 December 2011.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit