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Cesária Évora

Cape Verdean vocalist reaches across cultural divide, sings of life’s sorrows and joys

By David Wilson

By Cesária Évora (Cape Verde)
RCA Victor

I scoffed when an Icelandic friend brought my wife and me a Cesária Évora CD and described her as a blues singer. Europeans, I thought. What do they know about the blues?

More, it would seem, than I do. Since that first introduction a few years ago, Cesária Évora has become a fixture in our house, our car and anywhere else we listen to music. What she sings is not blues, but how she sings it is. A blues sensibility — that rich gumbo of vocal power and emotional vulnerability, of pathos and playfulness — runs through everything Évora sings.

I don’t understand a word she says but I can feel what she’s saying. Regarded as the world’s foremost performer of Cape Verdean mornas (“mourn”), itself a hybrid of Angolan, Brazilian and Portuguese idioms, Évora reaches out across cultural divides and sings of life’s sorrows and joys in the universal language of the soul. Her velvety voice evokes the loneliness of the orphanage where she grew up, her failures in love, her struggles with poverty and alcohol, and the many years she spent performing as a virtual unknown for tourists passing through Cape Verde on cruise ships.

Évora quit performing altogether from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s. Like a lot of American blues singers who languished in obscurity at home, she went to France where she found an audience and record label; her star rose steadily thereafter. With a 2004 Grammy Award for best contemporary world music to her credit, her status as a major international artist is unquestioned. Yet, she continues to live in Cape Verde, and her principal performing venue is the small piano bar near her home. Her most recent album, Rogamar (“Pray to the Sea”) was recorded in her hometown of Mindelo, where she was born 65 years ago.

Voices as original and expressive as Évora’s are not learned, but God-given. I suspect she could turn the brassiest Broadway show tune into something sublime. In spite of her global fame, she has resisted commercial temptation and — like all great blues singers — continues to record music that remains true to who she is and where she has been. Integrity is God-given, too.

Recommended listening:

Best of Cesária Évora (1999)
Miss Perfumado (1992)
Diva aux pieds nus (1988)

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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