Melancholy from São Vicente for the whole world
Born in 1941 on São Vicente (Cap Verde), Cesaria Evora is one of the key representatives of the Cap Verde morna tradition and sang sadly in the harbour bars of her hometown Mindelo as a teenager. Her records are now sold in millions all over the world, and her tours lead her as a barefoot megastar from her home in Mindelo to Olympia in Paris and Carnegie Hall in New York, where she sings to packed houses.
Cesaria Evora’s world music career has taken her from a harbour bar to international stardom. Night after night for forty years the Queen of the Morna made her way with handbags and a brandy flask through the Cap Verdi bars, ravishing only some seamen with her soulful songs then nearly overnight became a sensation in Paris.
Smallish, plump, barefoot and plainly dressed, she nonetheless draws audiences whose members are willing to pay up to 100 DM to see a woman on the verge of 60. They come mainly to hear her voice, which is earthy yet able to rise and shape ever new variations on sodade – the sadness and nostalgia which it both expresses and soothes. It took decades for the Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora to find her way to Paris, New York and Berlin. Her life has been a fairytale such as only the now globalised music market is able to write – the tale of a plain, dark-haired and no longer young woman who sings her way from rags to riches. Cesaria has become her land’s leading celebrity, endowed since the mid-90s with a diplomatic pass handed to her personally as the Voice of Cap Verde by a prime minister less well known.
Cesaria Evora was born in 1941 on São Vicente in the harbour town Mindelo. Her mother was a cook, and her father a street musician who died when she was only seven. Her mother neither drank nor smoked nor ‘bummed around’. Cesaria did, and not till 1994, long after her rise to stardom, was she ever without cognac. At the age of seventeen it was a different matter, as she plodded from bar to bar, singing for a few escudos or glasses of wine. Her musical beginnings lay in the bar Day and Night, where the guests were a motley crew. Fishermen, home for the evening, brushed elbows with foreign seamen. Songs were sung and dances danced – the waltz, the foxtrot, the contredanse and of course the native dances like the Funana, the Coladeira and, last but not least, the morna.
The sad songs – related to the Portuguese Fado but laced with African and Brazilian rhythms – arose in the dancehalls and harbour bars of the archipelago in the 19th century in the days of Portuguese colonisation, when the formerly uninhabited isles in the Atlantic served as a depot in the slave trade between the west coast of Africa and Europe and America. Cesaria Evora’s hometown, Mindelo, on the isle San Vicente blossomed briefly as a port of call and a coal depot.
The mornas express the mournful separation experienced by generations of islanders - the offspring of slaves, seafaring traders or buccaneers. This island republic gained independence in 1975, but even today, due to the harshness of the Sahel-climate with months of drought and to the lack of good natural resources, two thirds of the population opt to live abroad.
‘Morna is our religion and our therapy,’ claims Paulino Vieira, one of the better known musicians on the islands. ‘It calms us down and lets us forget our grievances.’ At the heart of the mornas are the song-texts, whose lyrical content makes them poems in their own right. These songs, which are traditionally accompanied by the guitar or the piano and are syncopated by an instrument called the cavaquinho, orbit round a feeling of loss, explained historically by the musician and morna-theoretician Vasco Martin: ‘Sodade’, translated inadequately as sadness and longing, came to reflect slavery and the nostalgia for lost origins. It is addressed to that ‘far away land’, as for instance in Cesaria Evora’s songs. ‘We do not know the geographical location of this terra longe,’ says Martin. ‘It may be Africa and is not only the land of embarkation but also the lost land. Though we no longer may have a feeling of being slaves, our souls and our way of singing are marked by going astray.’
Cesaria Evora soon made a name for herself as an interpreter of the morna. The music and texts are about her forefathers, sold as slaves, about the desert devouring the islands and about the poverty and the Portuguese dictatorship – about factors which have driven her fellow islanders to leave. Her songs proclaim the hopelessness of life in Mindelo’s harbour bars and grieve for lost lovers. Mindelo in the 60s was a melting pot known as Creole Rome. African, Brazilian, Cuban, Portuguese and Spanish seamen came briefly to its bars and to Cesaria. These diverse cultures melted into her pot, and at the age of 20 she was already to be heard on the wireless throughout the land. ‘Cize’, as she is known to her bosom companions, is said to embody the feeling of life on the Cap Verde islands, and her favourite composers and poets, like Amilcar Cabral, Theophil Chantre or B. Leza, are national heroes.
But the Queen of Morna had to wait years for international fame. On a concert tour in Lisbon in 1985, Cesaria Evora got to know José Da Silva, a young producer from Cap Verde, and the meeting was a decisive turning-point. Da Silva persuaded her to record the album La Diva au pieds nus (1988) in Paris. She was soon invited to sing in the Parisian club New Morning, and from there she soared to stardom. Her record Miss Perfumado (1992) had 300 000 buyers. In 1993 at the age of 52 she went on her first big international tour. The album Cesaria (1996) brought her the Golden Disc in France and the first of four nominations for the Grammy Award. She then went on a big American tour, during which she was compared to Billy Holliday.
In 1995 the Yugoslav composer Goran Bergovic discovered the Voice of Cap Verde and had her sing the tango Ausencia in Emir Kusturica’s cult film Underground. Then in 1998 François Kevorkian, one of the world’s most famous DJs, remixed one of her traditional titles Sangue de Beirona. Since then she has also been a hit in the New York club-scene.
She produced her next record with Cuban and Brazilian musicians in Havana. Café Atlantico bore her to the Olympus of world musicians. In France she was awarded several platinum discs and the Victoire de la musique. She now makes front-page news all over the world, performs on television - like on the David Letterman Show - and tours Europe, the USA and Canada to packed houses.
Though now an airborne nomad, Cesaria Evora remains rooted on Cap Verde. Café Atlantico is dedicated to her hometown Mindelo on São Vicente, where she now has a big house in which she welcomes friends and relations, serves traditional island meals and savours her well earned and tardy success.
Café Atlantico celebrates the oceanic links of Cap Verde with Brazil and Cuba, and Cesaria Evora continues this voyage of musical discovery on São Vicente di Longe - a record whose title means São Vicente seen from afar. As always, there are not only mournful mornas but also colourful coladeiras. Moreover Cearia has extended her repertory with Cuban sones, Brazilian sambas and American gospel. Within the framework of her Lusophone and African heritage she has thus found her own musical cosmos. Recorded in Havana, Paris and Rio de Janeiro with more than 60 musicians including Caetano Veloso, Petro Guerra and Chucho Valdez and with a duet with Bonnie Raitt, São Vicente di Longe provides an ideal alternation between lightness and mild melancholy. This sumptuous production had nothing more in common with that of Cesaria’s early albums, but this newly found flexibility has not dulled her sensibility or artistic independence. The album evolves organically, leading from association to association and from the superficial to the intimate. Though Cesaria is now a privileged world star with wealth to enjoy, she manages again and again to rework the material from which anguish, dreams, consolation and hope are woven.
Events at the HKW:
Sunday, 19th November, 1995
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Thursday, 18th September, 1997
Cesaria Evora, Kapverden
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Thursday, 24th June, 1999
Cesare Evora, the lady who always stands barefoot on stage, comes from Mindelo on the Cap Verde island São Vicente, where she was born on 27th August, 1941. Already at the age of 17 she sang in the local bars and was known all over the land. Despite this early success, she abandoned singing in the 70s due to financial want. In the mid 80s she went with the singer Bana to Lisbon, where she met the producer José Da Silva, with whom she recorded in Paris in 1988 at the age of 47 her first album, La diva aux pieds nus. Her international breakthrough came in 1992 with Miss Perfumado, and her CD Cafe Atlantico (1999) has found more than a million buyers.