Alex Robinson meets the barefoot diva who has delighted audiences around the world with her mournful Cape Verdean songs
I am nervous as I wait for Cesaria Evora in the lobby of her Paris hotel. Even her record label had given me a cryptic warning. “Have you met Cesaria before?” ask one of their reps; “You haven’t, oh well… I hope you are prepared.” “Prepared for what?” I wonder. Further investigations prompt little more but remarks about “one-word answers” and irascibility. Twiddling my thumbs as I wait, I begin to wonder about how to play the conversation. I resolve to surf my nerves and order my third double espresso from the concierge. As the caffeine hits me with its faux-adrenaline rush, the lift door opens and the barefoot diva walks out. Wearing slippers and a scowl.
I decide to plunge in at the deep-end. I’ll interview her in Portuguese. And kick off with a provocative question. So after rapid handshakes and laconic pleasantries, I ask her about her famously fiery temperament. There’s a horrible pause. Then Cesaria fixes me with a glittering eye and speaks slowly, deliberately and seriously: “I am only interested in real people,” she says, “So if I don’t like someone, they know soon enough. I just make a strange face and say nothing.” She sits in silence staring at me with a fierce look for a long ten seconds. And then in a flash her face shifts like a mask, and she breaks into a mischievous cackle: “Let’s go outside and have a cigarette,” she says and pulls me across the lobby, casting a cruel glance at the concierge (who is clearly responsible for the ‘No smoking’ policy in the hotel).
Our breath is misty in the Parisian winter air. I shiver. But Cesaria is made of stronger stuff. She suffered a stroke in 2008 on her Australian tour, but dismisses the possibility of fragility with disdain and a long draw on her cigarette. Slowing down or giving up touring is clearly out of the question. “Of course I miss my home, my country, my family when I’m away. But singing is what I do. I only know singing; it’s my life. And it always has been.” Cesaria found her vocation early. “Right back when I was six years old I remember a group of friends were playing some songs at home in Mindelo. I turned up and began joining in. ‘Sing up!’ they all said, ‘you’ve got a great voice.’ So I did and I loved it. It all went on from there.”
Music was already in Cesaria’s family. Her father and his cousin Francisco Xavier da Cruz played regular spots in the bars and clubs in her hometown, which was a port busy with sailors. Da Cruz was becoming locally famous for his stunning guitar playing and plaintive compositions. “One day a Brazilian guy who was listening to my uncle became transfixed by his playing. ‘Beleza!’ he said, ‘Que beleza!’ (Beauty! What beauty!). And from then on Francisco had his stage name: B.Leza.” B.Leza wrote many of Cape Verde’s most famous mornas, including a Cesaria classic, ‘Miss Perfumado,’ and it was he who helped the saudade-tinged melancholic music become the islands’ (and later Cesaria’s) signature style.
“B.Leza was unique. I can’t imagine there ever being another like him,” says Cesaria. “The way he played, the way he composed, the way he was. His house was a meeting place. The doors were always open. And it was always full of people.” Cesaria was one of them. And by the 1950s she had joined her father, uncle and other B.Leza friends and family – including the singer Bana – and was playing in the bars of Mindelo. By her early teens she had moved on to the cruise ships. “In those days Mindelo was still a big port and boats would harbour there from all over the world. My singing was very popular. I used to sing on the Portuguese warships and on commercial boats from many other countries, and the ships’ captains always invited us to sing privately for them.”
But whilst Mindelo’s port was thriving, the rest of Cape Verde was suffering. The melancholy of B.Leza’s mornas reflected the mood in the islands of the time. Cape Verde in the 50s was a desperately poor place. A terrible drought immediately after World War II had seen thousands of people die of starvation and as many flee the country to neighbouring São Tomé, Europe or the US. A barely discernible shadow passes across her face as Cesaria remembers. She lights another cigarette and draws hard. “But we had hope,” she sighs. “In Cape Verde we have always had to fight poverty. But we have always lived in hope.”
The biggest hope was that of independence. Discontent with the colonial Portuguese had been brewing since the turn of the century. The Portuguese had colonised the archipelago when it was uninhabited, and peopled the islands with slaves, handfuls of administrators and, later, with generations of their children. For 400 years Cape Verdeans were a people without a national identity. But with the collapse of the empire in Europe in the 20th century, things began to change in this tiny outpost of a fascist Portuguese empire run by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. In 1936 a group of Cape Verdean intellectuals begun to produce an islander-only underground magazine, Claridade. The magazine championed what had become the default native language: Creole. In Creole it spoke openly of a Cape Verdean culture, music and poetry and presented some of the first ideas of a Cape Verdean people who were neither Portuguese nor their vassals. The magazine thrived in post-war Mindelo, spurred on by the florescence of culture which came with B.Leza’s compositions and the discovery of a Cape Verdean musical style. And with Claridade’s sense of national identity came a feeling of political discontent. In the 50s, Cape Verdeans were still heavily segregated according to colour; only people with whiter shades of skin had access to education and administrative roles within the colony. And in 1954 a poor Mindelo and Lisbon-educated black Cape Verdean, Amílcar Cabral, formed an independence movement.
“I was singing at the time, still in the ships and also on local radio stations, and whilst I never experienced prejudice, others I knew did, of course. We are friends now of course and have set our past aside. But at the time the Portuguese didn’t want anything to do with us,” recalls Cesaria. “Before we eventually won independence, racism was everywhere.”
But the Portuguese presence had its positive aspects too. “Mindelo was very busy back then. This strongly influenced our culture. We were exposed to music from all over the world and musically the town was thriving. There were lots of Brazilians in Cape Verde. And we loved Brazilian music. It was the Brazilians who brought percussion to Cape Verde, as well as the cavaquinho [a small Portuguese guitar]. We absorbed their rhythms too, and played them in our own style.”
Throughout the 50s and 60s Amílcar Cabral and agitators for Portuguese-African independence garnered support around the world. They formed the PAIGC (Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in 1956. They campaigned peacefully at first, but Salazar responded brutally, shooting 50 dead and sentencing the rest to 15 years hard labour. And in 1963 the PAIGC began a protracted war that forced Salazar and the fascists out in Lisbon, just over ten years later. The new democratic Portuguese government granted independence to Cape Verde in 1975.
“Democracy was a big thing for Cape Verde. We finally had our freedom,” remembers Cesaria. But whilst she was happy for her country, her singing career had suffered. During the upheaval Mindelo’s harbour and bars had quietened. And they were even emptier after the departure of the Portuguese.
Just as Cesaria had begun to forget the idea of singing again professionally, she received an invitation from her old friend Bana. Bana had found a new audience for B.Leza’s mornas in a revitalised, post-dictatorship Lisbon. And he was eager to share his success. Cesaria began to perform at his restaurant in 1985, and cut her first disc Tchitchi Roti shortly afterwards. Then in 1988, another Cape Verdean expat, José da Silva, invited her to come to Paris to record La Diva aux Pieds Nus, for his new label, Lusafrica. It earned her a loyal fan base in Paris. Her subsequent albums, Distinto di Belita and Mar Azul began to be played on French radio stations and with DJs raving about her smoky, honey-tinged voice her concerts were selling out. In 1992, Cesaria broke internationally with Miss Perfumado. It brought her a Grammy nomination and the assurance of huge success.
But as she stubs out her final cigarette, heading out of the Paris winter and back into the hotel, Cesaria assures me that success hasn’t changed her one jot. And nor will it ever, she assures me. “Some people call me the African Edith Piaf or the Creole Billie Holiday,” she says, with the undisguised contempt of a woman who has been at the forefront of shaping a national identity. “It’s not true,” she says. “I am me. I am Cesaria Evora. And I am from Cape Verde.”
Cesaria’s Best Albums
A best-seller that broke Cesaria’s career internationally. Classic morna ‘Sodade’ was the biggest hit but other wonderful moments include a rare political song, ‘Cumpade Ciznove.’
One of many Grammy-nominated albums but this one has more uptempo coladeiras than languid mornas. Cesaria rarely sounds happy but she seems to be having fun on ‘Tchintchirote’ and ‘Regresso,’ joined by stellar instrumentalists like guitarist Bau, clarinettist Luís Morais and jazz saxophonist James Carter.
The songs are soothingly rendered, accompanied by an array of acoustic instruments like clarinet, crisp percussion, piano, guitars and basses, cavaquinhos and a single violin. And ‘Mar de Canal’, with its interplay between Cesaria’s voice and a violin playing in the same register, is as beguiling as anything she’s recorded.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #67 (April/May 2010). Subscribe to Songlines