Born 1941 in Mindelo, Cape Verde; married and divorced three times; two children. Addresses: Home--Sao Vicente, Cape Verde; Record company--Nonesuch Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
Commonly called "the barefoot diva" because she often performs on stage in bare feet, Cesaria Evora of the Cape Verde islands is the world's reigning interpreter of a mournful genre of blues music known as morna. Morna is based on the Portuguese fado and features bluesy vocals set against a background of acoustic guitars, fiddles, accordion, and cavaquinho, which is a small, four-string guitar. "For years, the master of the morna has been Cesaria Evora, a Cape Verdean with a rich alto voice who has been accurately described as a cross between Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday," wrote Geoffrey Himes in the Washington Post. Evora's repertoire over the years has featured the compositions of top Cape Verdean songwriters such as Nando Da Cruz, Amandio Cabral, and Manuel De Novas.
Largely unknown until she was propelled into international acclaim at the age of 45, Evora has attracted legions of fans with sentimental, intimate songs that are delivered "with a pitch-perfect, full-toned resonance," according to Himes. "My songs basically express feelings about relationships, love relationships, and they sing about the lack of rain in the country," Evora said in Pulse!. Singing in a Creole variation of Portuguese known as Criuolo, Evora has won over legions of fans who do not understand a word of her soulful ballads. "Well, now I've been to different countries and the way people respond to me tells me that they really like the music, even though they don't understand the language," Evora told the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Many of Evora's songs are filled with a sense of longing and homesickness that strikes a chord in her homeland, since over half of all Cape Verdeans have emigrated out of the country. "Life in the islands is not easy, because there are very few resources, and you could say that my life and life in the islands are related," she told Pulse! "But in reality, the people are very happy. They enjoy life." Evora's songs offer advice to young people, pay homage to the elderly, lament the loss of a lover, and address other nostalgic themes. Her shoeless performance mode has been said to be her way of symbolizing the plight of poor women and children in her native land, although some accounts indicate that her nickname stems from a visit to Paris when she refused to wear shoes. "I got that name because the first record I recorded in France was called 'Barefoot Diva,'" claimed Evora herself in the New York Times.
Cesaria Evora was born in the port town of Mindello on the Cape Verde island of Sao Vicente, and lived for many years under Portuguese colonial rule until the country gained its independence in 1975. Life was a struggle for her as a child after her father, a violinist, died at a young age and left her mother to take care of seven children. Most of her siblings emigrated to other countries, but Evora stayed in Cape Verde and has always felt strong ties to her homeland.
Surrounded by music as a child, Evora started singing at an early age. "I started singing in the neighborhood where I lived, just with my friends ... It was just to amuse ourselves," she told Rhythm Music. She began performing in various bars in Mindello, and took up morna at age 16 after a romantic involvement with a guitarist. After a recording she made on national radio made the rounds, she began to be invited to sing in bars throughout the ten islands that make up the Cape Verde chain. According to Nonesuch Records, "With a voice conveying power, vulnerability and an emotional affinity for this style, Evora quickly found a niche for herself in Mindello's musical life and through committed performances gained a distinguished reputation as the 'Queen of Morna.'" Evora's frequent accompanist at the time was the well-known clarinetist Luis Morais. "In Cape Verde ... I used to sing for tourists and for the ships when they would come there'" she said in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "That's why I always thought that maybe if I made it, people from different countries would love my music."
By age 20, Evora had achieved a measure of fame at her local radio station. A few tapes of her performances at the station made their way to Holland and Portugal in the 1960s and were recorded into albums. Despite this exposure, Evora never left Cape Verde for many years, and she stopped singing altogether in the 1970s. "There was no real progress," she acknowledged in Pulse!. "I wasn't making any money out of it, so I just stopped."
Evora came out of retirement in 1985, when she went to Portugal and recorded two songs for a women's music anthology at the request of a Cape Verdean women's organization. Her big break came in the 1980s when she met Jose da Silva, a Frenchman originally from Cape Verde who became entranced with her singing. Da Silva convinced Evora to go to Paris with him to record some of her music for his Lusafrica label. "Because I couldn't find anyone to help me out in Cape Verde, I had to start recording in France in 1988," she told the New York Times. That year she recorded La Diva aux Pieds Nus, then followed with Distino di Belita in 1990, and Mar Azul in 1991. Her 1992 album, Miss Perfumado, made her a major star in France and Portugal, and sold over 200,000 copies in France alone. This recording featured two of her most popular songs, "Sodade" and "Angola." "The record shimmers throughout as strings and accordions mingle deliciously around Cesaria's sublimely relaxed voice," noted Banning Eyre in Rhythm Music. Evora's reputation across the world soared after this release as she went on tour in Europe, Canada, Africa, and Brazil. At the age of 51, she had suddenly become a major star.
When Evora began her first major U.S. tour in the fall of 1995, she was greeted by sell-out performances across the country. She received thunderous standing ovations at the Montreal Jazz Festival that year. "I know this is my opportunity," she noted in Pulse! in discussing the tour. "They're going to feel my message through my presence and my music." Her 1995 release, Cesaria Evora, on Nonesuch Records was cited by New York Times music critic Neil Strauss as one of the ten best albums of the year. In the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Josh Kun called the album "remarkable." The record went double gold in France and reached number seven on the album charts in Portugal according to Billboard Magazine, claimed Nonesuch Records publicity materials.
Simplicity has been a hallmark of the Evora style, as was emphasized by Jon Pareles in his New York Times review of a 1995 performance at the Bottom Line in New York City: "She [Evora] stated melodies almost unadorned, lingering with vibrato at the end of a phrase and sometimes languidly sliding down to a note." Pareles added, "In her tranquil contralto, there were painful memories and unsatisfied longings, a sense of pensive reassurance and of inconsolable loss." Evora also found a very appreciative audience at a performance at Birchmere in Washington, D.C. that year. Washington Post reviewer Mike Joyce said, "Evora projected an unusual combination of vocal power and emotional vulnerability." "At times Evora not only sang of heartache, she seemed to personify it, each gesture reflecting the weight of her experience and pain," Joyce also noted.
Much of the emotion of Evora's singing draws on her own experience. Known as a heavy drinker and smoker, she has endured three painful divorces and the blindness of her mother, in addition to her father's untimely death. She vowed never to live with a man again after her third divorce, according to Neil Strauss in the New York Times. "I am married to my mother [with whom she still lives], my children [a 35-year-old son and a 27-year-old daughter], and their two children," Evora said in Rhythm Music.
Most of Evora's albums have one or more morna songs written by her uncle, the well-known morna composer Francisco Xavier da Cruz. For a number of years her main performance venue has been The Piano Bar of Mindello on Sao Vicente where she lives. She has performed in numerous world music festivals, and as the opening act for top stars such as Natalie Merchant. Evora is dedicated to her Cape Verdean roots and has not been lured by the trappings of stardom or affected by the globe trotting and international fame of her later years. "I wasn't astonished by Europe and I was never that impressed by the speed and grandeur of modern America," she said in World Music. "I only regret my success has taken so long to achieve."
by Ed Decker
Cesaria Evora's Career
Began singing in bars in Cape Verde, 1950s; was discovered in Europe when tapes of her radio performances were sent to Holland and Portugal, 1960s; recorded two songs for a Cape Verdean woman's music anthology, 1985; recorded first album, La Diva aux Pieds Nus, in Paris, France, 1988; achieved major success with Miss Perfumado, 1992; went on world tour, early 1990s; had first major U.S. tour, 1995; performed in Montreal Jazz Festival, 1995.
- Selective Works
- La Diva aux Pieds Nus, Lusafrica, 1988.
- Distino di Belita, Lusafrica, 1990.
- Mar Azul, Lusafrica, 1991.
- Miss Perfumado, Lusafrica, 1992.
- Cesaria Evora, Nonesuch, 1995.
February 8, 2004: Evora won the Grammy Award for best contemporary world music album, for Voz D'Amor. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
- Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, Richard Trillo, World Music: The Rough Guides, The Rough Guides, 1994, pp. 278--79.
- Sweeney, Philip, The Virgin Directory of World Music, Henry Holt, 1991, p. 30.
- Periodicals Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 1995, p. 12.
- New York Times, September 21, 1995; September 23, 1995, p. C13; January 4, 1996.
- Pulse!, October 1995, p. 42.
- Rhythm Music, September 1995.
- Village Voice, October 3, 1995, p. 67.
- Washington Post, September 22, 1995, p. D11.
- Washington Post Weekend, September 15, 1995, pp. 15--16.
- Further information for this profile was obtained from Nonesuch Records publicity materials and the website for the San Francisco Bay Guardian on the Internet.