More than half of Cape Verdeans live far from the beautiful archipelago their ancestors once called home. The Portuguese discovered these ten Atlantic Ocean islands in 1460, populated them with Africans and Europeans, and governed harshly until 1975. Three-hundred-and-fifty miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde served as one of Africa's first slave ports, and became one of its last nations to achieve independence. All this helps to explain why the melancholy morna, an often minor-key song style tied to love, loss and sadness, best expresses the Cape Verdean national identity. And nobody sings a morna with more gusto than Cesaria Èvora .
Cesaria Èvora was born and lived most of her first fifty years on the island of Sào Vicente. Her violinist father died when she was just seven, and though she does not remember him, her grandmother has told her that she used to sit on his lap while he played. Surrounded by music, Èvora grew up singing with her friends in the suburbs of Mindelo. When she was 16, a boyfriend who played guitar convinced her that she had an exceptional voice and encouraged her to pursue music as a profession. Before long, Èvora recorded some songs for the national radio station, and began to build a reputation. Those colonial times offered few options for musicians, but Èvora developed a modest career performing in bars and restaurants, and sometimes in the homes of wealthy Portuguese patrons. She idolized Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holliday and Amalia Rodriguez, the greatest exponent of the fado, and though she steers clear of making comparisons between the morna and other forms, she does concede a certain spiritual connection with the blues because it too was born of suffering.
Once Cape Verde achieved independence in 1975, many of the Portuguese aristocracy who had been her lifeblood during colonial times fled the new socialist government. For the next ten years, Èvora barely sang. Then, in 1985, a Cape Verdean women's organization asked her to record two songs for a compilation CD. She went to Paris to record, and while there, played some concerts. Her abundant talent visible at last, Èvora quickly became Cape Verde's most celebrated singer. Her success in Europe was nothing short of phenomenal. She packed houses in Paris that other African divas could only dream of playing. Èvora favors an elegant, acoustic backing band-mostly plucked strings-and sings in a robust alto that lifts the weight of hard experience with resolve and tenderness. In the early 90s, she produced two highly influential recordings Mar Azul (1991) and Miss Perfumado (1992). The latter in particular was widely considered a masterpiece and a model for all recordings of the morna since. Èvora 's subsequent releases continue the all-acoustic approach used on those landmark records, and she has been nominated for Grammy awards four times.
Èvora performs with closed eyes and bare feet, which she calls part of the "national costume" of Cape Verde. She says that when she sings, memories play in her head transporting her to other times and places. Èvora 's triumphs have not changed her much. When not performing, she still lives in Sào Vicente with her mother, and near her two children and their children. Tough-minded and self-assured, Èvora proclaims a fondness for cigarettes and whiskey, shrugging off any notion that such habits might harm her voice. "I've had plenty of time to ruin my voice," she says. "And since it's not ruined yet, I'm going to continue." Èvora's Grammy-nominated 1999 album, Café Atlantico, included invited musicians from other parts of the world, particularly Latin America. On her 2001 release, São Vicente, she went still further, including performances with Caetano Veloso, Bonnie Raitt, and Orquestra Aragon, among others. Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org
Update: After announcing her retirement in September of 2011, Èvora passed away in December of the same year. She died in hospital in her hometown of Mindelo on her beloved island of Sao Vicente. She was 70 years old.