Cesaria Evora at University of Warwick Arts Centre
Truly this lady is amazing. Her stage presence is overwhelming, her deeply emotional alto voice is so riveting, one gets lost in the music (although I don't understand a word of Portuguese!).
Cesaria Evora was born in 1941 in the port town of Mindelo on the Cape Verde island of Sao Vicente and is known as the barefoot diva because of her propensity to appear on stage in her bare feet in support of the disadvantaged women and children of her country.
Cesaria has long been known as the queen of the morna, a soulful genre sung in Creole-Portuguese which is strongly associated with the islands and combines West African percussion with Portuguese fados, Brazilian modhinas, and British sea shanties. She mixes her sentimental folk tunes filled with longing and sadness with the acoustic sounds of guitar, cavaquinho, violin, accordian, and clarinet. Evora's Cape Verdean blues often speak of the country's long and bitter history of isolation and slave trade, as well as emigration: almost two-thirds of the million Cape Verdeans alive live abroad.
The string of soulful song which connects the fado of Portugal to the choro of Brazil also extends to the morna and other musical forms of the former Portuguese colonial islands of Cape Verde, off the northwest coast of Africa.
Now a whiskey-drinking, cigarette-puffing grandmother, Cesaria Evora has succeeded in exporting her tiny nation's sounds to Europe and the U.S, in recordings and live performances. You won't guess her habits or her age from her voice, soft and engaging as a large cloud in a sunny sky. And you'd be only slightly more successful in guessing the source of musical influences on these recordings, aside from the Portuguese.
Fado seems present in the opening track, "Petit Pays", where French touches the title and a portion of the lyrics, which are mostly in the Portuguese patois of Evora's native island of Sao Vincente. Likewise, you might think of the mainland legend Amalia Rodrigues when you listen to "Rotcha 'Scribida", though Evora's conveyance of longing is more accessible and credible, possibly because it doesn't use the throaty power of a Rodrigues. This and several of the songs were written by Amandio Cabral, now a resident of the Bay Area and much admired in jazz circles.
Others of the songs seem to take you across the Atlantic to Brazil. In its minor-major modulations and upbeat tempo, "Xandinha" is evocative of forro, while the tearful sentiment and hovering sustained notes of "Tudo Tem Se Limite" are closer to the ballads of choro. The airy, playful instrumental combo of reed, violin, and guitar backing the singer's "D'nhirim Reforma" would find itself at home beside Brazilian barroom pagode. These similarities, though, are more likely due to coincidence of parallel evolution than to intentional mimickry. And there are so many nice surprises that you'll find yourself listening repeatedly to find new treasures such as the ticklish rolling piano on "Oriundina", the decorative guitar work suggestive of country-and-western virtuosos on "Tudo Dia E Dia", or the humming and children's chorus on "Flor Na Paul", a French-sounding waltz from a grandmother's memory, complete with accordion.
As you become familiar with the songs, you'll begin to recognize the integrity of the Cape Verdean pastiche and probably fall in love with it. The predominance of strings, particularly guitar and cavaquinho, are reminders of the Portuguese connection, but the lacey rhythms underneath seem born of the shifting air and light of the islands. Don't overlook the translations of the enchanting lyrics, filled with nostalgia and unforgettable images such as "walking alone/with the breaking sea/crying at our separate fates".
"Morna is like the blues because it is a way to express life's suffering in music."
Evora's voice, a finely-tuned, melancholy instrument with a touch of hoarseness, highlights her emotional phrasing by accenting a word or phrase. Even audiences who do not understand her language are held spell-bound by the emotions evident in her performances.
Now 63, and a grandmother (though never married), Evora is gladdened by her current worldwide popularity,
"... in all those years when I sang in bars and in front of strangers I sometimes had an idea I might someday be successful outside my country. The thought never stayed with me for very long, but here I am."
Cesaria agreed to become a WFP Ambassador against Hunger after learning about the Agency's free school meals for over 100,000 children in Cape Verde.
"I saw with my own eyes how food attracted children to school," said Cesária. "We need to educate our children if we want our continent to prosper, but they can't learn if they go to school hungry."
Cesaria is a woman who seems to derive much joy in going against the norm (she smoked on stage during her performance in Warwick University's Arts Centre that has a strict no-smoking policy). Check out her official website above for more info on this amazing lady.