Cape Verdean blues

Dubbed "The Barefoot Diva," Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora has been filling concert halls around the world throughout the '90s. And though she strikes a dazzling image in performance, draped in flowing colorful African gowns and, yes, without shoes, it is her voice, singing emotional tales of longing and homesickness, that communicates to audiences worldwide.

Evora is now synonymous with Cape Verdean music. However, a decade ago, few outside of the small chain of islands off the west coast of Africa had heard her music. Her story almost sounds like a fairy tale. Evora, 57, began singing as a teenager, performing in clubs in Mindelo, Cape Verde. Her repertoire included songs by many of her homeland's most accomplished songwriters, including her uncle B. Leza.

While she was highly regarded locally, there were no record deals, no international tours and no worldwide acclaim. This went on for decades, until 1988 when Lusafrica Records' Jose Da Silva, a French producer of Cape Verdean descent, saw her in concert, took her to a recording studio in Paris and the rest, as they say, is history. A Grammy nomination, gold records (a bona fide rarity in world music), international tours -- all achieved after the age of 50.

Growing up, Cesaria Evora used to listen to the music of the world's great singers, particularly Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Amalia Rodrigues. Today Evora's name is regularly mentioned in the same breath as those vocalists.

Evora sings a variety of styles of Cape Verdean music, all in her native tongue, Portuguese creole, but is best known for her classic mornas. The morna is a Cape Verdean form that is often compared to American blues, but has roots in the music of West Africa and Portugal. The music and the language reflect the history of the islands which, from the 15th-19th centuries, were used by the Portuguese as slave ports.

Among the many sources of inspiration from which Evora draws is the culture of Brazil, a country she has visited twice. She has said that one of her fondest memories is of performing with Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso (their duet was featured on the AIDS benefit CD Red, Hot and Rio). Evora also says there are Brazilian beats in many styles of Cape Verdean music, including the morna. "We even have a sort of Carnival in Cape Verde every February, and do you know what it is called? 'Little Brazil.' Everyone dresses up and sings sambas, in our creole."

On stage, Evora's concerts are what she calls "Unplugged -- Cape Verdean Style." This includes six-, 10- and 12-string acoustic guitars, a cavaquinho (a small, four-stringed guitar of Portuguese origin), piano, violins, percussion, flute and clarinet. For the past decade, her band has been led by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bau, who is regarded as Cape Verde's finest arranger and who plays 10- and 12-string guitars, cavaquinho and violin.

Evora's shows are filled with songs that are now Cape Verdean classics. Among her many standards is "Sodade," her first gold record (and the first gold record in France in a language other than French or English). The song's title means "homesickness" in Portuguese creole. It tells a tale that has become part of the Cape Verdean collective culture of young, nostalgic islanders who were taken to Sao Tome to work on the cocoa and banana plantations in the 1950s.

Another of Evora's longtime favorites is "Cinturao Tem Mele, Dansa Tcha Tcha Tcha." She says it is a song from the 1960s about a young woman who was dating an American Marine officer. "The soldier began beating this woman after she danced the cha cha cha without his permission," she explains.

While few here in the United States speak her language, these tales in Portuguese creole seem universal. It all comes back to her voice -- powerful yet vulnerable, able to communicate across virtually any language barrier.

Evora says her name always seems to be preceded by a nickname. Often it is "The Queen of the Morna" or "The Barefoot Diva." But one that she hears quite often back home is "Old Rum," referring to a local variation of the alcoholic drink made from sugar cane, which, says Evora, "tastes best after being aged for decades." Dan Rosenberg writes frequently about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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