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.

Contributor

Peter Culshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Paint it black

Pencil, paper, miner's helmet. Jill Tunstall joins the underground artists

Jill Tunstall

03, Jul, 2000 @12:27 AM

Article image
Cézanne: paint it black

After decades of writing about art, John Berger thought he knew Cézanne. But a Paris retrospective proved a revelation

John Berger

12, Dec, 2011 @10:00 PM

Cesaria Evora: sad-eyed lady of the dry lands

Cesaria Evora's melancholic set is as volcanic as the Atlantic islands from which she hails.

Neil Spencer

21, Jul, 2002 @12:11 AM

Article image
Bathtime and black paint: Tracey Emin posts lockdown diary
Artist has been sharing her life on Instagram in a project for White Cube gallery

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

06, Apr, 2020 @11:21 AM

Article image
Paint it black: Frank Holl, master of Victorian darkness

He was admired by Van Gogh and Queen Vic herself, but after he worked himself to death in 1888 Frank Holl's art was forgotten. Now a Surrey gallery is trying to shed a little light, writes Maev Kennedy

Maev Kennedy

18, Jun, 2013 @4:36 PM

Cesaria Evora and Ballaké Sissoko | World music review
Barbican, London
The queen of Cape Verdian blues was let down at her London comeback gig by a relentlessly cheerful band, writes Robin Denselow

Robin Denselow

05, May, 2010 @10:45 PM

Article image
Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora recovering from heart surgery
The 68-year-old diva is recovering in a Paris hospital after undergoing emergency open-heart surgery on the weekend

Sean Michaels

12, May, 2010 @10:42 AM

Cesaria Evora, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

James Griffiths

28, May, 2004 @2:00 AM

Article image
Cesária Évora obituary
Singer behind the popularity of Cape Verde's morna ballads

Garth Cartwright

17, Dec, 2011 @6:25 PM

Article image
Review: Empire of the Wolves by Jean-Christophe Grangé

Chris Petit is gripped by the dark side of Paris in Jean-Christophe Grangé's Empire of the Wolves.

Chris Petit

02, Oct, 2004 @12:07 AM