Cesária Évora: The Barefoot Diva
Morna is a style of music that is traditional in Cape Verde, the nation of islands off the coast of West Africa. It is reminiscent of the blues with overlays of influences from Africa, Portugal, Cuba, and Brazil. The greatest exponent of this kind of music was Cesária Évora, who performed shoeless and hence became known as the “Barefoot Diva.”
The Morna Music Style
Sad and melancholic are words frequently used to describe morna. Lyrics are usually in Cape Verdean Creole and the accompaniment includes guitars, piano, clarinet, violin, and accordion.
Michael Limnios runs an online blues community. He describes morna as a genre “that stresses separateness, longing, wistfulness, and all the sadness of a disenfranchised people who have experienced pain.” It is the blues that is common in so many disadvantaged cultures.
The best way to understand morna is to hear it. So, here is Cesária Évora singing her most famous song, Sodade.
You don’t need to speak the language to pick up the mournful nature of the song. The title is a Cape Verdean version of the Portuguese word “saudade” that has been translated as “missing”. It describes a profound yearning for something or someone.
For decades Cape Verdeans have left their island homes in huge numbers to seek work and the song reflects the homesickness they feel.
The opening line is Quem mostra’ bo esse caminho longe? “Who showed you the faraway path?” Elsewhere, there is “You write to me, I’ll write to you/You forget me, I’ll forget you.”
Cesária Évora was born in August 1941 in Mindelo, São Vicente, Cape Verde. Her father died when she was seven leaving her mother unable to cope with raising six children. So “Cise,” as she was known to friends, was placed in an orphanage at the age of 10.
As a teenager, Ms. Évora started performing in sailor’s taverns around the port of Mindelo. She sang for small change and drinks. She began travelling and singing among the islands of her country but in a nation struggling with widespread poverty the occupation of an entertainer was not lucrative. By the mid-1970s, she’d had enough of scratching out a meagre living and stopped performing.
Then, she was “discovered.”
International Fame for Cesária Évora
As with many artists who become an “instant success,” Cesária Évora finally found fame after 30 years of honing her craft in obscurity.
In 1985, she decided to give her singing career one more shot. She went to Lisbon to perform for the large Cape Verdean expatriate community there. She was heard by José da Silva, a Cape Verdean musician based in Paris. He persuaded Évora to make recordings for his label Lusafrica. These were played for Francois Post a well-known figure in the world music business. The result was two albums until Mar Azul (Blue Sea) came out in 1991.
The Guardian notes that “Da Silva recorded Évora singing morna numbers backed by a small acoustic group. This allowed her limpid vocal style to shine, and French media began championing her.”
Sold out concerts followed at bigger and bigger venues; then came a distribution deal with the record company BMG, as well as a Grammy award. The story was the same wherever she went in Europe and North America. Until 2009, she continued extensive touring and every couple of years she recorded a new album.
The Unspoiled Diva
The sobriquet “diva” never suited Cesária Évora. The word conjures up a star of a tempestuous nature who is throwing tantrums when her outrageous demands are not met.
Cesária Évora remained largely unaffected by her fame.
She appeared barefoot because she had never had shoes as a child and as a reminder of the poverty of Cape Verde.
Her health started to decline in the mid-2000s “undermined by her long fondness for whisky and brandy, which she gave up, and cigarettes, which she never did” (Philip Sweeney).
She suffered a small stroke while touring Australia in 2008 and underwent open heart surgery. Forced to retire, she announced “I infinitely regret having to stop because of illness; I would have wanted to give more pleasure to those who have followed me for so long.”
She returned to her home town of Mindelo and to the same street on which she grew up, although in a larger home. She died in 2011 at the age of 70.
As an obituary in The Guardian notes “When asked if she was impressed by performing at concert halls in the world’s greatest cities, Évora shrugged and replied that if Cape Verde had access to the same resources, it too would have such venues.”
- Cesária Évora sang in Kriolu, a language that draws on Portuguese and some African dialects.
- During concerts, Évora would take an on-stage break while her back-up musicians played an instrumental. Should would puff on a cigarette and take a few slugs of liquor before singing again.
- The Portuguese were the first people to inhabit the Cape Verde archipelago. That was in the 15th century and the islands became prosperous as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Largely neglected by Portugal, the islands became an independent nation in 1975.
- “Morna: Blues with Saltiness & Sadness.” Michael Limnios, Blues GR, August 4, 2011.
- “Cesária Évora.” Steve Huey, All Music, undated.
- “Cesaria Evora: Cape Verde’s Soulful ‘Barefoot Diva.’ ” Philip Sweeney, The Independent, December 23, 2011.
- “Cesária Évora Obituary.” Garth Cartwright, The Guardian, December 17, 2011.
- “Singer Cesaria Evora Dies at the Age of 70.”BBC News, December 17, 2011.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor