It was Cesaria Evora's fate to be born on Cape Verde, an archipelago 350 miles off the coast of Senegal. These ten small islands are so wind-blasted and desolate that they were uninhabited until 1462. Four centuries of exploitation followed. Even now, the poverty is so severe that over a third of the country's million citizens live abroad. Do not expect the islands' greatest singer to fill her CDs with music that makes you want to dance.
In fact, Cesaria Evora's specialty is morna, an intensely melancholy, minor-key music, sung mostly in Portuguese. But for the 57-year-old Evora, Cape Verde's musical tradition is only the first reason that her songs are odes to longing and regret. Although she was a local star by 20, she never left the islands until she was in her mid-forties, when she finally made her first recordings.
Now she's the darling of the world-music crowd, but she still performs shoeless, to express her solidarity with her impoverished countrymen. She stares out at interviewers from a round face that is testimony to an unending world-weariness. Indeed, a few hours before a recent sold-out performance in New York, her sole concern was for a fresh delivery of coffee and cigarettes—which reminded me how, halfway through her set, she invariably sits alone at a small table, lights up, and listens to the band play on.
JESSE KORNBLUTH When you're onstage and you take that cigarette break, you seem a million miles away. Are you?
CESARIA EVORA No. I'm taking a break because I'm addicted to cigarettes. So I relax and enjoy it.
JK In a rare upbeat song, you sing, "God gave us the world to live happily in." Do you live happily?
CE I'm not a sad person. But in life, there are so many moments when you have to be sad. It's all in the moment.
JK I read that you've been left by three husbands. And then you said, "No man shall ever sleep again under my roof." True?
CE I've never married. I've had three kids with different men. And I still like men. And what I'm sure I said was "I don't have a husband with me all the time."
JK You stopped singing for ten years. How painful was that?
CE Not. I was working and not getting any results, so I decided to stop. In '85, I got some work, so I started again.
JK What is a day like for you in Cape Verde?
CE I have a completely normal life. I take care of my house, I visit with family and friends. At night I sometimes go out. Whatever the rest of the world may think of me now, I was always considered a great singer at home. But we all know each other. There's no "stardom" in Cape Verde.
The night I saw Evora, she came onstage in a simple dress and delivered two dozen exquisitely mournful songs. Then, for the final encore, the band played with an energy and rhythm that was first cousin to the Cuban jazz of the Buena Vista Social Club. The crowd was on its feet, hands over heads, clapping and dancing. The only person in the theater who seemed unmoved was Evora, who stood apart, stolidly accepting their love. At last, she spoke just two words: "Obligado. Terminée." And then she permitted herself one small, delicious shimmy.
Cesaria Evora performs in New York November 9 at the Beacon Theatre and November 12 at Lincoln Center, in a tribute to Tito Puente.