She knew poverty. As a young girl, she suffered the humiliation to be taken to an orphanage after her father’s death, because her mother could not afford to raise all her seven children. She never forgot that, nor did she forget the long hours spent as a waitress in the local bars of Mindelo, a port city on the island of São Vicente, her birthplace in the Cape Vert islands. It was in those bars that Cesária Évora first performed and built up a small fame. She, however, never made it big. She did record some songs for a local radio, but no one ever noticed this young girl who could sing the various styles of the islands: coladeira,
funana, and morna. Yet, it was this last musical genre that would propel her on the international scene. Morna is typical of Cape Vert. Some call it the blues of West Africa, other see in this style a version of the saudade – a nostalgic feeling mixed with melancholy and sadness – which is at the core of the Portuguese fado or much of the Brazilian production.
After years away from the stage – she raised three children largely by herself-, Cesária Évora returned to sing in local clubs and made a tentative debut in France in 1988. Within five years she was selling hundreds of thousands of records, with concert audiences to match. Grammy nominations, critical adulation and the praise of famous singers quickly surrounded the chain-smoking, barefoot grandmother, yet Évora remained remarkably distant about her new status. She sung barefooted to remember the poor women of her land, who much had to suffer and put up with. She did not act as a star, yet she was well aware of her standing among the world’s greatest vocalists.
Évora sang in Kriolu, a language mixing Portuguese with West African languages which developed in Cape Vert when slaves were brought in from the mainland. She was called back to the stage by Bana, a Lisbon-based Cape Verdean singer, who invited her to Lisbon in 1985. Her Lisbon performances were well received and José da Silva, a young music producer of Cape Verdean origin, offered her to record her songs at his then tiny Lusafrica label.
Her debut album, La Diva aux Pieds Nus (The Barefoot Diva – 1988), and a follow up, Mar Azul (Blue Sea – 1991), made her known to the public in France. Fame came when the international record company BMG signed a deal with Lusafrica to distribute Évora’s albums. Miss Perfumado (1992) was backed by a BMG campaign and sold more than 300,000 copies in France. An international tour took her in all continents, and away from her beloved São Vicente, where she always returned in between jobs.
Évora loved rum and cigarettes. Even during performances, she would instruct her band to play while she took time off to smoke and have a drink. She kept a no-nonsense approach to both audiences and media, holding that Cape Vert was her real place, where she could live and get inspiration. Each album she recorded, one every two-three years, became a hit. She was one of the few singers in a foreign language to win a large US audience. She recorded with some of the most important singer and musicians of our time, yet she remained an anti-diva without affectation.
In 2008, she suffered a stroke while on stage in Melbourne. In 2010, it was the turn of a heart attack soon after a concert in Lison, she had open-heart surgery Paris two days later. She retired from performing in September, 2011. Évora died on December 17, 2011, in her home in Mindelo, where her house was always open to welcome those who wanted to greet her.
She left us a long list of morna ballades, performed by a deep, warm voice. A voice that was capable to evoke deep feelings in her listeners. A voice which will remain a benchmark for future generations of singer who wish to take us in the world of saudade.