Cesaria Evora, The Barefoot Diva, is Dead at 70

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Cape Verde’s beloved barefoot diva, Cesaria Evora, died today.  She had been ill for some time.  She got her start at waterfront bars on her home town of Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente,  part of the Cape Verdean archipelago.  I don’t think people would even know about Cape Verde if it wasn’t for her.  She once told me about Cape Verde:  “the island is poor, but it’s full of sun, music, and fish….we are not a sad people, because we live out of hope….”

Her first album was called La Diva aux Pieds Nus (the barefoot diva.) This was because she always performed barefoot!

Cape Verde’s President Jorge Carlos Fonseca announced a two-day period of national mourning, noting that “Cesaria was one of the major cultural references of Cape Verde”.

I first got a hold of her album Mar Azul around 1991.  Truth be told, it didn’t grab me at first.  It was only after hearing the title song played by Chris Douridas on Morning Becomes Eclectic that I was electrified by her unique singing and music.  It’s funny, auditioning records en masse dulls the appreciative organs….it somehow always sounds different when you hear somebody else playing it on the radio, usually better.  I bought all her cd’s as they came out, helped arrange her very first LA appearance at the Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica Airport in 1994, which was sadly under-attended.

Cesaria often didn’t look friendly.  She was ill-at-ease on the Letterman show.  But underneath that sour-looking exterior lurked a sly, impish, and fun artist.  She visited me on my KCRW shows five or six times, and was always smiling and happy to see me.

One funny anecdote I enjoy is when two extremely influential music executives went to Cape Verde to meet her.  Upon arriving at her home,  they were greeted by an assistant who curtly told them both that Cesaria was resting and didn’t want to be disturbed.  The two guys had come all the way from LA to try to meet her.  She was fiercely independent and proud, two reasons I loved her.

She gave us deep and sweet saudade in her bluesy mornas, countered those with fast coladeiras of unfettered joy.  Who can forget that she liked to take a smoke and brandy break on stage?  Like Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan, her voice was rich, magical,  unique and unforgettable.

She played for spare change in the 1950s and 60s on Mindelo, just caging enough money to pay for food and drink.  Her music was unknown outside of Cape Verde until she went to Lisbon to perform at a women’s conference.  There she met fellow Cape Verdean Jose da Silva of Paris-based Lusafrica Records,  who was to record her and release her breakthrough album Miss Perfumado.  The French championed and enthroned her.

I will be featuring early recordings she made in the early 60s when she was just out of her teens, as well as a great live Paris concert she did at the Olympia tomorrow.  She was beautiful and will always be.  The photo on the right below was taken in happier times.  Bob Werne, my longtime production assistant, is bending over into Cesaria.  Maria de Barrios, Cesaria’s god daughter and also a fine Cape Verdean singer, is wearing jeans on the right.

Check out Cesario Evora in the KCRW Archives.