Cesária Évora, a Capeverdean singer, died Dec17, aged 70
AS A child, Cesária Évora never stepped into the waves. She was frightened of the Atlantic breakers that tumbled up the beaches of São Vicente or crashed in high spray on the rocks, and never learned how to swim.
Yet there was no avoiding the sea. In her home on the Cape Verde Islands, lying almost 600 kilometres off the west coast of Africa, there was almost no slope or road or window from which it could not be seen. The sea took Capeverdeans away, flinging to France and Brazil and New England as many as stayed clinging to their dry land. Their exile broke hearts, but gave them money to send home. The sea was full of fish, where the brown scrubby land, neglected by its Portuguese colonisers, would grow hardly a tamarisk or a cane stalk. When Cesária felt homesick abroad—an improbable international star in stout middle age, pining for cachupa stew and crisp batatinhas in some chilly hotel room in Germany or Japan—she never thought of green, though the name of her islands implied it. She thought of blue.
When musicologists wondered where the islands’ songs came from—those sad, syncopated mornas that blended Portuguese fado, Brazilian modinhas, the laments of Angola and even, some thought, the shanties of British seafarers—she had only one explanation. They were about love, emigration, homesickness, looking for work, waiting for rain, missing people. And with their continual wave-like interlinking of one line into the next, their evenness and endlessness, so that it seemed she could go on singing them for ever in her limpid, lovely voice, they could only have come from the sea.
Certainly she began to sing beside it, in the harbour bars of the red-light district of Mindelo, the main town of São Vicente. It was in the mid-1950s and she was a teenager, living in the orphanage because her mother could not afford to keep her. She sang barefoot, for she would never wear shoes, to sailors and adventurers, to tourists on the cruise ships that anchored like walls of lights out in the bay, and to members of the Congelo fishing company at their dinners. A handful of escudos was her pay, or just a cigarette and a sip of cognac, leaning over the bar. So started her habits of smoking between her songs, even onstage in New York, settling back and lighting up as her eight-man band performed, and appearing with bare, horny, wriggling feet even in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, gently sashaying around the stage as if on some Atlantic shore.
Her first serious love, a sailor called Eduardo, taught her the mornas he knew. But then he left on a boat for Europe, and never returned. Her life thenceforth could only be full of sodade, longing, the theme of her most famous song:
There were plenty of other “husbands”, more than she could count, she said; three gave her children, but all of them just came and went, like the sea. She knew some bad years, living in fetid rooms under bare bulbs in a stink of stagnant water, and it was said that afeitiço, or bad spell, possessed her then. But she came out of it. Life was like that: first poison, then honey. After the struggle and storm, the soothing calm:
When she was 47, tape recordings of her music reached Lisbon; three years later, a grandmother now, she found herself the toast of Paris, la diva aux pieds nus; a year after, in 1992, she produced the album, “Miss Perfumado”, that earned her five gold records. A Grammy came in 2003 for her album “Voz d’Amor”, and the Légion d’Honneur in 2009. People compared her to Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday; she was flattered, but didn’t agree. In her case, a rough life and a vast nicotine intake left no shadow on her voice, light and pure and simple to the end.
She took on her role as ambassador for her unknown islands with a mixture of solemn indifference and wide-eyed delight. Through her 50s and 60s she performed her cabarets—for her shows kept the tang of those run-down waterside Mindelo bars, wherever she was—with all the strength she had. Only homesickness was hard. In Paris she sought out Portuguese restaurants, and in Vancouver she tried not to look too hard at the blue of the Pacific beyond the hotel.
Fame never changed her. She went on living with her mother in the house in Mindelo where she had first heard her tipsy father play cavaquinho, the four-string mandolin that rippled behind her songs. And there, though she had added ten bedrooms and mounted her gold discs on the wall, she still cooked cachupa and fried up fish for anyone who came to call. This was her own “Café Atlantico”, as she had called her eighth album, the haven at the end of the world, where though the waves crashed and the wind blew there was always something good, and surprising, and comforting, to come out of the sea.
Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2012.
Also read: The New York Times report:
Cesária Évora, Queen of Morning Singing From Cape Verde, Dies at 70
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