Remembering Cesaria Evora, 1941-2011

Cesaria Evora, the Grammy winner who introduced the West African sounds of Morna to the world late in her life, died Saturday in her native island of sao Vicente in Cape Verde.

She sang in French and Portuguese but her message was well conveyed by the deep and mournful voice.

As she told me in an interview 15 years ago, “It’s not always the words that are important; it’s the way the voice expresses itself. You have to have an open mind.”

And she said, through an interpreter, fans who didn’t know what the words mean, “come back after a show and tell me how they like it and how meaningful it is to them.”

There was a lot of music to hear when she was growing up in the port city of Mindelo, on the Cape Verde island of Sao Vicente where there was“a lot of different types of music,” Evora said. “Cape Verde has 10 islands, and all the islands have their own traditional songs.” When she began singing as a teen, she said, `Morna was the music at the port that I had been singing at the time.”

The word morna well describes the songs: low, rich, mournful songs of longing that transcends language.“I guess it’s the way people express sadness in their lives and relationships,” she said. “It’s the way you express yourself.”

Evora became Mindelo’s “Queen of Morna” and performed in a number of clubs. But with the decline of the port city in the ’50s, combined with the independence of Cape Verde from Portugal in 1975, the music scene diminished, and Evora got out.

“I did stop for 10 years,” she says. “It was getting me nowhere. I just stopped until 1985, when a group of women asked me to come with them to Portugal to record a song.”

That got her back out, and she began to be heard by outsiders, including a French record producer with Cape Verdean roots, Jose De Silva.

”He knew I sang for a lot of foreigners, including French and Americans, he said, `Let’s try it.’ If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s a risk he took. I was 47 at that time.”

De Silva flew Evora to Holland, where she recorded “La Diva aux Pieds Nus” in 1988. It was followed by “Distino di Belita” two years later and “Mar Azul” in 1991. It was her fourth album, “Miss Perfumado,” in 1992 that made her a hit in France, Portugal and Spain.

At age 52, she was a star, selling more than 200,000 copies of the album and selling out shows in Paris, Lisbon, Montreal and Barcelona. With the stage bearing of Bessie Smith and the transporting, yearning voice of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday — all singers she admires — Evora became known as the “Barefoot Diva” because of her stage manner of singing shoeless, in solidarity with poor women of her homeland.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that U.S. listeners became clued into her compelling style, when her self-titled debut on Nonesuch Records broke into Billboard’s World Music charts for a long stay. It got a Grammy nomination, but she didn’t win the award until 2003, when the album “Voz D’Amour” won in the World Music category.

Even in 1996, when she was 55, she didn’t think her career would be long. “I’m really getting old ,” she said. “I have to stop someday.”

She ended up working until September because of health problems. She had been diagnosed with hart problems starting in 2005 and suffered strokes in 2008 and in September, when she announced her retirement.

“I hope I opened the door to new Cape Verdean artists, who can come up and have the same luck I did,” she said.

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