Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora

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The Barefoot Diva from Cape Verde (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I have spent the last week in Cape Verde, 300 miles southwest of Dakar, Senegal. The islands were discovered in 1460 by a Portuguese explorer named Diego Gomes, who was en route to Goa, India. All he found were volcanic islands uninhabited except for a few goats wandering around.

I have come to this country for the music. I featured Cape Verdean music by the Mendes Brothers back in the day when I did Morning Becomes Eclectic and maybe a few other artists. But it was Cesaria Evora who really brought Cape Verdean music to the world, beginning in 1988 with her album La Diva aux Pieds Nus (“The Barefoot Diva”, which she really was). Cesaria–called Cize by her adoring Cape Verdean fans–was virtually unknown and unrecognized outside of Cape Verde until a Paris-based Cape Verdean producer named Jose da Silva brought her to Lisbon for a Women’s conference in the late 1980s. He then signed her to his Lusafrica label, she recorded Mar Azul, then Miss Perfumado, the latter album which made her a star in France.

la diva aux pieds nus
The 1988 album that brought Cape Vedean music to the world (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I heard the song “Mar Azul” and was floored. Cesaria has a voice and style that is unforgettable. Her slow, sad ballads, called “mornas” are completely captivating. The other style she excels at, “coladeira” is a faster style in 6/8 rhythm that for me is the most joyous-sounding music I have ever heard.

I was lucky to have met and interviewed Cesaria several times. I was there for her very first LA show in 1993 at the now-defunct West Hollywood club Luna Park. The next year I worked with others to present her at a show at, of all places, the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport, along with Michael Franti and his group Spearhead and other bands. Cesaria later played UCLA, The Hollywood Bowl, and other big venues.

She had problems at some US venues because she liked to take a cigarette break and sip some brandy onstage. She also didn’t suck up to anybody. Once two US music industry bigwigs went to her home on Sao Vicente island hoping to meet her. The person who answered the door told them her boss didn’t feel like seeing anybody that day. She wasn’t impressed.

Cesaria is no longer with us but her presence is everywhere. On a nine hour bus tour of Santiago, the island I’m currently staying on, her albums were played for the whole trip. Listening to her music as we passed through small villages and through canyons with craggy peaks was unforgettable.

Here’s a live performance of Cesaria in 2004. Her music truly does capture the vibe of Cape Verde.