Cesaria Evora, the singer who thrives on misery

Peter Culshaw meets Cesaria Evora, the singer who thrives on misery

Jose da Silva first came to Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands after hearing Cesaria Evora sing in a Lisbon restaurant. "She was living in a ruin with her mother and two daughters," says the man who is now her manager. "They were living in one room, and you could see the room below through the holes in the floor. The worst problem was that her mother was almost blind and they had to guide her every step." At least they usually had enough to eat. "They never starved because Cesaria went to the bars and just about made enough. Her voice saved them."

Cape Verde, a group of 10 islands in the Atlantic a few hundred miles east of Senegal, is not some balmy paradise, but essentially a rocky and sandy extension of the Sahara. Evora's new album is called Sao Vicente di Longe - after the island she comes from - and its cover shows the 60-year-old singer among the dunes, in what looks like a moonscape. In one affecting photo she is carrying a cockerel and holding out two eggs to the camera, with a typically impassive expression. "It's very bleak," says Evora, "but there's a beauty in the bleakness."

The same is true of Evora's music. The lush instrumentation - strings, horns and shuffling percussion - makes her songs far more enjoyable than the sometimes dirge-like Portuguese fado from which they partly derive. As a result, each of her haunting albums, such as Miss Perfumado, Cesaria and Cafe Atlantico, has had more success than the last.

When you see her perform, she seems to move between melancholy, longing and that untranslatable bittersweet Portuguese word soudade. If the Inuits have a string of words for snow, Cesaria seems to have discovered a whole range of gradations of sadness. She sings what is known as morna, as Cape Verdean as the tango is Argentinian, only occasionally lifting the tempo with another indigenous song form, the comparatively lively coladeira.

Last week, in what was billed as Cesaria Evora's Fiesta, she performed with other Cape Verdean groups in a 17,000-seat Lisbon arena. But if the word fiesta summons up images of bright colours and wild dancing, you'd be mistaken (Cesaria says her favourite colours are "black, black and black"). No one moves and it's impossible to gauge the audience's reaction. But at the end of the set they stomp and cheer and flick their lighters, and at the third encore everyone gets up and dances.

Evora is becoming a serious global star. She has now sold 4m albums - Britain is the only European country to have resisted her. Her forthcoming American tour will include a date at the Hollywood Bowl, and an appearance on David Letterman. Madonna asked her to perform at her wedding and again for her birthday, but Evora turned her down both times.

Backstage in Lisbon, the record company talk is of demographics, territories and "lifestyle marketing", which seems to mean getting the record played in restaurants. A Swedish journalist asks Evora what it is like to be known as "the drinking and smoking grandmother of pop". She says, reasonably enough, that lots of grandmothers drink and smoke, and in any case she's given up the whisky. Someone else wants to know why she's wearing shoes - after all, the one thing everyone knows about her is that she is the "barefoot diva". It turns out she has had an operation on her ankle but will return to her normal shoelessness as soon as she can. Then she sits on her own to eat a Cape Verdean buffet dinner.

She doesn't appear to be even slightly impressed by the circus around her. Is it difficult to retain the ambience of the music in the kind of large arenas she now plays? She is still doing some of the same material that she used to as a bar singer in Cape Verde. "I perform the same way whether it's in front of a president, a group of fishermen in a bar, or in a big concert hall." She exudes an almost rock-like equanimity, but then perhaps that is the best way to cope with the extremes of her life. "I don't feel happy or sad when I sing my music, I feel myself."

But she does get animated talking of Cape Verdean cooking, comparing the new album to a stew that had to be prepared using exactly the right ingredients and then shared with the world. The album is full of sublimely heartwrenching music, above all a duet with Caetano Veloso that suggests hope through the gloom, a mythical moment of magical realism when Cape Verde became green: "The rain/our friend/sends its salvation/the entire island became a garden."

"It did rain like that once," Evora says, "but that was so many years ago I can hardly remember."

• Sao Vicente di Longe is out on BMG.


Peter Culshaw

The GuardianTramp

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