Cesaria Evora

Born : 1941/08/27 in Mindelo (Cape Verde)
Dead : 2011/12/17 in Mindelo (Cape Verde)
Country : Cape Verde
Category : Female Artist
Style of music : world music

If I'd known young people could die, I'd never have loved anyone," proclaims Cesaria Evora in one of her most famous songs. The Cape Verdean star, hailed as one of the most influential black voices in the world, has enjoyed a truly exceptional destiny, rising from rags to riches in the course of her long and chequered career. The singer, whom close friends and family call "Cize", is better known to millions of music fans around the world as the "Barefoot Diva" because of her penchant for appearing barefoot on stage.

If I'd known young people could die, I'd never have loved anyone," proclaims Cesaria Evora in one of her most famous songs. The Cape Verdean star, hailed as one of the most influential black voices in the world, has enjoyed a truly exceptional destiny, rising from rags to riches in the course of her long and chequered career. The singer, whom close friends and family call "Cize", is better known to millions of music fans around the world as the "Barefoot Diva" because of her penchant for appearing barefoot on stage.

Cesaria was born in Mindelo, a small commercial town on Sao Vicente (one of the ten islands which make up Cape Verde) on 27 August 1941. Her mother worked locally, scraping together a meagre living as a cook and bringing up her daughter in a state of "dignified poverty". Cesaria's father, who earned his living as a violinist, died shortly after his daughter's seventh birthday - probably as a result of alcoholism, Cesaria admitted many years later. Left practically destitute, Cesaria's mother preferred to leave her daughter in the care of the local orphanage. And it was here that the young girl got her first taste of music, learning to sing with the orphanage choir.

Cesaria left the orphanage choir at the age of 13 but her musical apprenticeship was not to end there. Three years later the young girl would meet the first great love of her life - a sailor by the name of Eduardo who was the second person, after Gregorio Gonsalves, to teach her the traditional coladeras and mornas of her homeland. Cesaria soon went on to launch her own singing career, performing in the local bars of Mindelo then going on to bring the house down at the famous Calypso and the Café Royal.

The young teenager wasted no time in establishing her reputation on the local music scene. Honing her repertoire as she went along, Cize would perform for a handful of escudos or a couple of glasses of alcohol, leaning over the bar to drink them, habitual cigarette in hand. Young Cize spent much of her time hanging out with local musicians and slowly but surely blossomed into a genuinely talented star.

Cape Verde - which was still a Portuguese colony in those days - had a thriving music scene which inspired Cesaria throughout her teenage years. Local musicians took pride in performing traditional coladeras and mornas - a sort of "national blues" which had been passed down from generation to generation by Cape Verdean ancestors who had lived in slavery up until the 18th century. In fact, one of Cesaria's own ancestors, a certain Francisco Da Cruz (1905-1958), a.k.a. B.Leza, played a leading role in the history of the morna. Francisco Da Cruz, a cousin of Cesaria's father, made a name for himself as one of the greatest morna composers on the archipelago. Cesaria was thus familiar with the haunting sound of the morna (a name inspired by the English verb to mourn) from an early age.

Sodade

In 1973, two years before Cape Verde - like most other former Portuguese colonies in Africa - gained full independence, the archipelago lost its national hero Amilcar Cabral when the famous revolutionary and morna composer was victim of a political assassination. By this time Cesaria Evora was well on the way to replacing Cabral as the islands' national heroine. Thanks to constant touring on the piano-bar circuit and several singles which had proved extremely popular on national radio, Cesaria's charisma was beginning to win her a committed following of fans.

However, despite the fact that critics were beginning to pick up on her talent and her career was being helped along by several "high society" acquaintances, Cesaria never really managed to break away from her roots. Poverty and alcohol were what Cesaria knew best and her songs continued to revolve around the eternal themes of suffering, melancholy and exile. The latter struck a particular chord with music fans in Cape Verde as 500,000 of the islands' inhabitants (i.e. more than half the population) were living in exile abroad, large numbers of them in Portugal where Cesaria's career would take off in such dramatic fashion a few years later.

In spite of her increasing popularity, Cesaria struggled hard in the early days of her career and actually ended up abandoning music for a full ten years. These ten "dark" years appear to have been largely spent drowning her sorrows and failed love affairs in drink, plumbing the depths of "sodade" (the nostalgia of lost love and exile). At this nadir of her career Cesaria looked to be facing a bleak and tragic future. However, Cesaria Evora's destiny turned out to lie in a completely different direction altogether.

In 1985 Cesaria resumed her singing career thanks to the encouragement of Bana, the legendary patron of Cape Verdean music who was living in exile in Portugal. It was thanks to Bana that a local women's association in Lisbon invited Cesaria to go and perform a series of concerts in the Portuguese capital. And thanks to the association that she stayed on to record her debut album. Sales of this first album remained fairly limited, but Cesaria's trip to Lisbon did prove to be a major turning-point in her career. For it was while recording and performing in Lisbon that the singer met José Da Silva, the man who not only became her producer but also her personal mentor.

Da Silva, a young French man with Cape Verdean roots who had formerly worked as a pointsman on the French railways, persuaded Cesaria to go to Paris where she recorded a new album, "La diva aux pieds nus" (The Barefoot Diva) in 1988. This album, which featured a highly infectious mix of coladera and zouk rhythms, launched Cesaria's career in France and the Cape Verdean diva went on to perform her first Parisian concert at the legendary "New Morning" in 1990. Cesaria was soon back in the studio, putting the finishing touches to a second album, "Distino Di Belita" which introduced listeners to a mix of haunting acoustic mornas and jazzed-up electric coladeras.

"La diva aux pieds nus" and "Distino Di Belita" won instant acclaim for the modernity and originality of their arrangements (largely the work of Cesaria's artistic director, the renowned composer Paulino Vieira). These breathed new life into traditional Cape Verdean rhythms and made Cesaria's music an instant hit with young Cape Verdean exiles around the world.

1991: "Mar Azul"

Cesaria's next album "Mar azul" marked a distinct change of musical direction. Released in 1991, "Mar Azul" (Cesaria's first entirely acoustic album) won rave reviews in the international press, which by this time had been totally won over by the charms of the "Barefoot Diva". Sales of Cesaria's next album "Miss Perfumado" soon went on to top 300,000 and the Cape Verdean star brought the house down when she performed in Paris at the legendary Olympia. By 1993 the "Barefoot Diva" (who really does have a penchant for appearing barefoot on stage) was ready to set off on her first major international tour.

1994 marked a major turning point in Cesaria's career as well as her personal life. For that year Cesaria signed a deal with a major label (BMG) and brought out a compilation of her greatest hits, entitled "Sodade, les plus belles mornas de Cesaria". Later that same year the singer also made a vow to give up alcohol.

Cesaria's next album, entitled simply "Cesaria", proved to be a huge international success. Indeed, "Cesaria" went gold in France and earned the Cape Verdean diva a nomination for a prestigious Grammy Award in the States. Bowing to popular demand, Cesaria embarked on her first American tour in 1995 and the following year the indefatigable diva went on to play over 100 concerts in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, bringing the house down all the way from Hong Kong and Sweden to Senegal and the U.K.

After parting company with Paulino Vieira (who was replaced by Rufino Almeida, a talented young guitarist better known on the music scene as Bau), Cesaria went on to record a new album entitled "Cabo Verde". This album, released in 1997, was followed by the singer's third major American tour. In 1998 Cesaria was back in the charts with "Best of Cesaria Evora", a compilation of the singer's greatest hits, composed for the most part by B.Leza (the man responsible for catapulting the morna to fame in the 1950s).

Cesaria In Havana

Cesaria rocketed back into the music news in 1999 with "Café Atlantico", an album which she recorded in Havana with a group of Cuban and Brazilian musicians. This did not mean the barefoot diva strayed very far from her Cape Verdean origins, however. On the contrary Cesaria remained faithful to the morna and to her favourite composers B.Leza, Manuel de Novas and Teofilo Chantre. However, "Café Atlantico" also included tracks arranged by Lazaro Dagoberto Gonzalez (of Orquesta Aragon fame) and by Brazilian musician Jacques Morelenbaum (an old friend and associate of Caetano Veloso).

Cesaria, an anti-star by nature, has nevertheless managed to become something of a living legend in her homeland. The Cape Verdean diva, who is a committed fan of Billie Holiday, Oum Kalsoum and Edith Piaf, has also become a role model for a host of international female stars, everyone from Madonna to Greek singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki and soul diva Erykah Badu citing Cesaria as a major source of inspiration.

Between the 7th and 10th of December '99 Cesaria finished off her autumn tour in style, returning to the Olympia in Paris for another series of triumphant performances. 

In the spring of 2000, as sales of her album "Café Atlantico" reached 150,000, the indefatigable Cape Verdean diva set off on an extensive international tour. Needless to say, the singer brought the house down wherever she went, delighting audiences throughout Latin America, northern and eastern Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and Canada.

As tireless as ever at 60 years of age

During the beginning of the following year some 300,000 copies of "Café Atlantica" were sold on the French territory. Yet, Cesaria did not rest on her laurels and as soon as she got back from her tour, she settled in a studio in Paris and, along with her musicians, penned some new titles. They put together an album that was released in March 2001. Entitled "Sao Vicente di longe" after the island where Cesaria was born, it remains akin in spirit to her last album, paying a tribute to the music of the Atlantic islands. A few tracks were recorded in Cuba, with the likes of Orquesta Aragon (Linda Mimosa) and Chucho Valdez ("Negue"). Another song, "Regresso", was recorded in Brazil with the very famous Caetano Veloso. All in all, no less than sixty musicians, producers and engineers cooperated with the Barefoot Diva.

Bowing to popular demand, Cesaria returned to France in 2001, performing to a sell-out audience at Le Zénith in Paris on April 28th. Her show featured a special line-up of Cape Verdean guest stars including Teofilo Chantre, clarinet-player Luis Morais and the singer Fantcha. A few days later, on May 9th, Cesaria embarked upon a mini-tour of France, performing a handful of popular shows up and down the country.

By the end of 2001, her latest album had been quite successful with 150,000 copies sold in France and 320,000 in the US.

In Spring 2002, Cesaria Evora resumed her French tour but also extended it to the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean. During this frantic tour, she performed in Croatia, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Iceland, Morrocco, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. She was then to be seen at the Summer Festivals.

Cesaria proved her attachment to African music later that year, guesting on Salif Keita’s album "Moffou." The pair recorded a haunting duet together entitled "Yamore." The barefoot diva finished the year in style with "Anthologie : Mornas e Coladeras," an album featuring a number of previously unreleased tracks such as a surprise cover of "Saudade" recorded with Angolan singer Bonga.

Voz d’amor

Cesaria was active on the campaigning front in 2003, too, recording a contribution to "Drop the Debt" (a compilation featuring international stars who supported the idea of abolishing the debt crippling developing nations). Meanwhile, in June of that year the album "Club Sodade" introduced Cesaria's music to the club scene and the hippest bars on the planet. The album featured eleven of the barefoot diva's hits remixed by a series of cult DJs including French duo Château Flight, Senor Coconut and Carl Craig.

In July 2003, Cesaria continued her work on the humanitarian front after being called to Lisbon to be appointed official ambassadress of the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

Later that year, the singer locked herself away in a villa in Montreuil, in the Paris suburbs, for six weeks to work on her ninth studio album, "Voz d’Amor."  The fourteen tracks on the album revolved around traditional songs from the Cape Verdean repertoire (including songs by her uncle B Leza and Cape Verdean star Manuel de Novas). "Voz d'amor" proved to be a huge international hit. In November 2003, the album reached no.3 in Poland, no.7 in Greece, no.22 in Portugal and no.4 in the American World Music charts. "Voz d'amor" also scooped two major awards, picking up a prestigious Grammy Award in the U.S. in February 2004 and a “Victoire de la Musique” award in France. Cesaria completed her honours collection later that year when the French culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon made her an "Officier des Arts et des Lettres."

Despite being in her sixties, Cesaria has not slowed down her concert schedule at all. Her 2004 tour included dates in every capital city in Europe as well as Tunisia. And the Cape Verdean star also guested at a fund-raising concert in Paris (19 October 2004) on behalf of the association “Homéopathes sans frontières.”

Cesaria has teamed up with a host of different artists in the course of her career. And in 2004 she joined French singer Bernard Lavilliers in the studio to record a duet ("Elle chante") which featured on Lavilliers's album, "Carnets de bords".

Cape Verde's barefoot diva kept up her indefatigable schedule, acting as a roving ambassadress for the traditional sounds of her homeland which, thanks to her, had become an integral part of the international music map.                                               

2005: "Rogamar"

In 2005, Cesaria began work on a new album, recording in studios between Mindelo, Paris and Rio de Janeiro. The result was "Rogamar", a 15-track album released in March 2006 and produced by Fernando Andrade (the singer's pianist since 1999). The Brazilian Jacques Morelenbaum added an exotic touch, working on arrangements for half-a-dozen songs and introducing strings and flutes to Cesaria's traditional sodade.

The majority of the compositions on this new album were written by Manuel de Novas and Theofilo Chantre. Lyrically speaking, "Rogamar" (Pray to the Sea) featured age-old themes such as exile, the ocean and Carnival. The album included contributions from an impressive list of guest stars including the Senegalese singer Ismael Lo ("Africa Nossa") and the Madagascan star Régis Gizavo ("Sao tomé na equador", based on original music by Ray Lema) which recalled Cape Verde's historical links with Africa. French pop-rock singer Cali also added his vocals - in Creole – on the sensual "Um pincelada."

From 11 March to 13 April 2006, Cesaria hit the road again, undertaking an extensive tour of North America (USA and Canada). Dates across Europe and the Maghreb followed.

Cesaria took to the stage at L'Olympia for a short run towards the end of the year, appearing at the legendary Paris venue for three concerts (24 - 26 November 2006). After a much-deserved break, the singer hit the road again and embarked upon a major tour of Australia at the end of February 2008. Cesaria was to have headlined at "Womadelaide" but she suffered a minor stroke after performing at the Sydney Opera House and her tour was cut short in March. The singer was subsequently flown home for medical treatment in France.

In December 2008, fans were treated to a series of forgotten Cesaria recordings unearthed from the archives of Radio Barlavento by a former sound engineer. 22 previously unreleased tracks (recorded during sessions for the local radio station in Mindelo in the early '60s) documented the Barefoot Diva's first tentative steps towards a singing career. Half of the songs on the album, entitled "Radio Mindelo", were written by the virtuoso Cape Verdean guitarist Gregorio Gonçalves (aka "Ti Goy.")

On 9 February 2009, Cape Verde's Barefoot Diva received one of France's most prestigious honours, the French Culture Minister, Christine Albanel, presenting her with the "Légion d'honneur." 

2009: "Nha Sentimiento"

Sixty-eight-year-old Cesaria brought out her eleventh album, “Nha Sentimiento”, on 26 October 2009. Recorded in Paris and Sao Vincente in Cape Verde, it includes more joyous coladeiras than melancholy mornas, as if joie de vivre has outdone heartache. Other distinctive features of this new production: the Egyptian strings played by Fathy Salama’s Cairo Orchestra on three of the tracks (“Sentimento”, “Mam’Bia”, “E So Mi”); and the Latino accordion sounds of Colombian Henry Ortiz on “Ligereza”.

The “Nha Sentimiento” tour kicked off at the Grand Rex in Paris on 9 and 10 November 2009, and then travelled to Geneva, Zurich, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem until the end of the year. A new volley of concerts was planned for 2010. Unfortunately, in May of that year, Cesaria Evora underwent emergency open-heart surgery in Paris following a coronary problem.  The operation was a success, but the singer was obliged to rest until at least the end of 2010.

2010: "Cesaria &..."

To entertain them during the wait, her fans were treated to an album of duets entitled “Cesaria Evora &…”, released on 29 November 2010. The songs include Cesaria Evora interpreting "Sodade" with Bonga, "Africa Nossa" with Ismaël Lô, "Um Princelada" with Cali and "Elle chante" with Bernard Lavilliers. The 17-track album is an emotional offering and a reminder of the Cap-Verdean singer’s international scope.

Once she had recovered, Cesaria Evora took up her journey round the concert venues of the world in March 2011. The ambitious tour took her to Minsk in Russia on 10 March, Bogota in Colombia, back to Russia and then France, where she played at the Grand Rex in Paris on 29 and 30 April, before returning to Saint-Pierre-de-la-Réunion for the Sakifo Festival on 10 June.  

In September, ill and weak, the singer cancelled all her concerts and announced that she was drawing her career to an end.
 
It was the Cap Verdean minister of culture, Mario Lucio Sousa, himself a singer, who announced the death of Cesaria Evora on 17 December. “Cize”, as she had been affectionately nicknamed, had given in to cardio-respiratory complications. Cap Verde and the musical world grieved the “Barefoot Diva”, and her country’s government called for two days of national mourning. She was buried in the cemetery on Sao Vicente, the island of her birth.
 
An unusual artist who defied musical labelling, Cesaria Evora was a genuine ambassador of her country. She introduced the world to her island’s culture with her soulful morna, to which her exceptional voice will forever be associated.
 
December 2011

 

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