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Cesaria Evora (1941-2011): One of the Great Divas, Too Little Known

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Cesaria Evora died over the weekend at her home on her native island of Sao Vicente.

Can't place it? It's one of the Cape Verde islands. And you may not be able to place them either. With reason: this archipelago sits 350 miles off the coast of Senegal.

It was Cesaria Evora's fate to be born there. Geography was destiny for her -- her voice was the living soul of Cape Verde. But Cape Verde is also the reason that one of the greatest singers on the planet died without being better known.

These ten small islands are so wind-blasted and desolate that they were uninhabited until 1462. Four centuries of exploitation followed. And Cape Verde's poverty has continued to be so severe that over a third of its million citizens live abroad. So you really couldn't expect the islands' muse to fill her CDs with songs that make you want to dance.

In fact, Cesaria Evora's specialty was morna, an intensely melancholy, minor-key music, sung mostly in Portuguese. But for Evora, Cape Verde's musical tradition was only the first reason that her songs were odes to longing and regret. Although she was a local star by 20, she never left the islands until she was in her mid-forties, when she finally made her first recordings.

It wasn't until her 50s that she became the darling of the world-music crowd. She still performed shoeless, to express her solidarity with her impoverished countrymen. She still stopped singing in mid-concert to sit at a small table and smoke a cigarette. And she never veered from the music she'd made for decades; the last thing on her mind, it seemed, was mass success. [To buy "Café Atlantico" from Amazon, click here. To buy the MP3 download of "Café Atlantico," click here. To buy "Cabo Verde" from Amazon, click here. To buy the MP3 download of "Cabo Verde," click here.]

I interviewed her a decade ago. Her English wasn't strong, so she brought along a translator. After a while, we switched to French -- easier for her, harder for me. But her irony and wit came through quite clearly.

Jesse Kornbluth: When you're onstage and you take that cigarette break, you seem a million miles away. Are you?

Cesaria Evora: No. I'm taking a break because I'm addicted to cigarettes. So I relax and enjoy it.

JK: In a rare upbeat song, you sing, "God gave us the world to live happily in." Do you live happily?

CE: I'm not a sad person. But in life, there are so many moments when you have to be sad. It's all in the moment.

JK: I read that you've been left by three husbands. And then you said, "No man shall ever sleep again under my roof." True?

CE: I've never married. I've had three kids with different men. And I still like men. And what I'm sure I said was "I don't have a husband with me all the time."

JK: You stopped singing for ten years. How painful was that?

CE: Not. I was working and not getting any results, so I decided to stop. In '85, I got some work, so I started again.

JK: What is a day like for you in Cape Verde?

CE: I have a completely normal life. I take care of my house, I visit with family and friends. At night I sometimes go out. Whatever the rest of the world may think of me now, I was always considered a great singer at home. But we all know each other. There's no "stardom" in Cape Verde.

The last time I saw Evora in concert. she came onstage in a simple dress and delivered two dozen exquisitely mournful songs. Then, for the final encore, the band played with an energy and rhythm that was first cousin to the Cuban jazz of the Buena Vista Social Club.

The crowd was on its feet, hands over heads, clapping and dancing. The only person in the theater who seemed unmoved was Evora, who stood apart, stolidly accepting their love.

At last, she spoke just two words: "Obligado. Terminée." And then she permitted herself one small, delicious shimmy.

Cross-posted from HeadButler.com