By Emmanuel Legrand
Cesaria Evora, who died on Dec. 17 at the age of 70, was called “the barefoot diva” but aside from the stunning voice, she was nothing of a diva. She was the anti-diva. She was the least self-centred star you could ever meet. She was a colourful, humble, lively and funny person. She saw what was happening to her as a blessing and enjoyed every moment of it.
For her life before achieving global success had not been very enjoyable. She was from Mindelo, a port on Sao Vincente, one of the islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, off the coasts of Africa. Her father died when she was seven and had to earn a living at a very early age, which she did in her teens by relying on her main asset – a voice that flowed like honey. She had problems with men (she married three times), she looked after her kids and struggled to make both ends meet.
Her reputation grew in Mindelo and also in Portugal. She sang ‘mornas’, the traditional songs from Cape Verde, reflecting the tough lives of the people on the islands. She also used to sing taking her shoes off – hence the ‘barefoot’ reference – something she continued to do throughout her career, despite her fame.
In the late 80s, her music attracted the ears of Jose da Silva, a Parisian of Cape Verdean origin, who took her under his wings and got her to record for the newly created label Lusafrica. Sealing a deal with indie distributor Melodie, da Silva released her first album in France, ‘La diva aux pieds nus’ (the barefoot diva), which started to get media and public attention. And suddenly she graduated from the bars of Mindelo in Cape Verde to the world stage.
Melodie’s PR Francois Post became an evangelist and started calling all media (yours truly included) to rave about this incredible artist. And for once, it was not just hype for the sake of it. Evora was not sold on her looks but on her voice and on the beauty of her music. There was substance, there was a real history to her life. She was not manufactured. I remember writing a piece in 1988 for trade magazine Music & Media, trying to explain that she was not your average pop act, but that she was worth listening to (and to my surprise, the piece was published!).
Her voice and her demeanour won large audiences. And hundreds of thousands started buying her albums, in France and in the rest of the world. Da Silva – who was also managing her – made an international distribution deal with BMG for her recordings. Her most successful album was 1992’s ‘Miss Perfumado’, which helped her crack the US market. In 2004, she won a Grammy for her album ‘Voz D’Amor’, crowning an amazing career.
She spent most of the 90s travelling the world, winning new fans each time she was performing. On stage, she would just let the music take over. There would no props, aside from her bare feet and a glass of alcohol that she could sip while smoking a cigarette when her musicians played an instrumental tune. There was nothing revolutionary in her music, but it came from her heart and from the soul of generations of Africans who had suffered from slavery, colonisation and deprived lives.
Once, flying to Hong Kong for Midem Asia in 1996, I ended up on the same flight as her. She was due to perform in HK and also in Macau, where she would be greeted as a superstar by the Portuguese community living there. She was on an Air France flight from Paris and she was flying coach. When I asked someone who was working with her how come she was not in business, which would have been fair for a person her age with her status, I was told that she was due to fly business but her musicians were flying coach, so she gave up her comfort in order to be with them and enjoy their presence rather than being alone at the front of the place. While in HK, she stayed in a rather small room at the YMCA, but as long as she could smoke and crack jokes with her musicians she was happy.
In September of this year, she gave a very touching and heartbreaking interview to my friend Veronique Mortaigne from French daily Le Monde (Mortaigne wrote a book about Evora) in which she was announcing that she was quitting the business of touring to look after her health. “I need to rest,” she said to Mortaigne. She had just been going through some serious heart problems and revealed that she had a stratospheric blood pressure that was mostly due to her diet of sweets. Evora was extremely emotional during the interview. It was to be her last public comment.
Upon learning about her passing, Cape Verde president Jorge Fonseca called for two days of national mourning. She was the voice of Cape Verde and she never lost sight of where she came from. And she touched the hearts of millions with her soulful voice. Up there she is probably singing a few mornas, cracking jokes, lighting a cigarette and sipping a well-deserved drink.