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

Cesaria Evora Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

She is the globe's most unlikely superstar: a dumpy, boss-eyed grandmother from a half-forgotten string of islands in the South Atlantic who did not leave her homeland until the age of 46. 'Discovered' a decade ago by the rest of the world, Cesaria Evora now sells records by the routine million and commands full houses in the West's cultural capitals. Not bad for an orphanage girl and one-time bar singer.

Evora's show at the Royal Festival Hall last week was a little different, intended to show that she is not the only talent Cape Verde has to offer, and that her languid melancholia is not the islands' only musical style. Before she finally shuffled on, we were treated to a clutch of local stars: the wild-eyed Lura in cheetah-print dress, a saturnine Ildo Lobo, and the accordion-driven group Ferro Gaita. Each offered a variation on the Cape Verdean menu of morna, funana and coladeira, forms that twist the influences of West Africa, Portugal and Brazil into startling blends.

Evora's personal calling card remains morna, a lyrical fusion which owes as much to the forlorn fado of Portugal as to West Africa, and which is infused with sadness and loss. Whether it's separation from family and homeland (most of the million-strong Cape Verdean population live overseas) or regret for lost love, morna comes with a bittersweet melancholy (sordade). In part, it is a reminder that Cape Verde is no tropical paradise - the islands are dry and volcanic, uninhabited until imperial Portugal took them on. When Evora sings about her 'arid land full of love', morna becomes sublime.

Waddling onstage with cropped hair and bare feet (partly, she says, to show solidarity with the poor folk back home), Evora looks every one of her 61 years. While her gold necklaces attest to her success, she remains very much the same singer who became a local star in her early twenties, singing in the bars of her hometown of Mindelo, Sao Vicente. She still lives there, and though she no longer cradles a whisky onstage, she is still wont to stop mid-performance to puff at a Marlboro with her pianist.

Her problem, since her 1992 album Miss Perfumado, has been how to maintain her appeal with a genre that is deep but narrow; how many morna records does one home need? She and her record company have responded by bringing in more musicians, guest stars and dipping into Cuban and Brazilian forms to create a millennial, pan-Atlantic fusion. The results have not always convinced - 1999's Café Atlantico , with Cuban musicians, was a let-down, though she recovered her form on the more recent Sao Vicente Di Longe.

Her 12-piece band is a phenomenon, with a Cuban string trio on one flank, an exquisite reeds player on the other, and a tranche of guitars and percussion in the middle. They supplied rococo palm-quartet backings for the slow, lyrical songs, and loping, uptempo arrangements for expeditions into neo-salsa.

The audience were soon dancing in the aisles, though the formula of alternating slow and fast songs wouldn't let them stay there for long. Evora still sounds most comfortable on her old ground, and in the section of the show where she was left alone with her brilliant pianist, Paulino Vieira, and acoustic guitar or violins. For a brief moment, we were in a seaport bar with a younger woman, dreaming of a departed love - Evora has three marriages behind her, and while she is now disdainfully independent, her experience seeps through. We may not understand her Portuguese creole, but her feelings remain clear.

As the band moved up through the gears, Evora became less the intimate raconteur. She has come into her fame too late to inhabit the role of big-band diva but her vocal strength never falters. 'Besame Mucho', flanked by all her Cape Verdean chums, provided a suitable encore; slinky but rapturous.


THE PET SHOP BOYS Colston Hall, Bristol (Mon) Chris and Neil take their latest, exquisite album on the road.

McALMONT & BUTLER Cherry Jam, London W2 (Mon) The on-off affair between the inventive ex-Suede guitarist and the histrionic soul falsetto is back on.

WOMAD Rivermead, Reading (26-28 July) Talking drums across the Thames. The original world music festival is still the best for musical surprises - Echo and the Bunnymen, who headlined the first Womad festival 20 years ago, have just been added to the bill.


Neil Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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