Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Women at Sea: Barefoot Diva

On Saturday the 17th of December, the world lost a great but unfortunately little known treasure. The chanteuse known to the French as La Diva aux pieds nus died at her natal home in Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands. The fact that the lady named Cesaria Evora was a great singer of traditional West African music is not our only focus in remembering her, however. The Barefoot Diva came from dockside roots and got her start quite literally at sea.

Born in Mindelo on August 27, 1941, Evora was one of the eldest of seven children whose parents worked hard to make ends meet. Mindelo is a port town which, since the days of Portuguese colonization, had been a temporary home to sailors from all over the world. This was still the case when Cesaria – known as Cize (see-ZEE) to her friends – was little. Many of the people in town worked in industries that supported the mariners in one way or another, from restaurants and hotels to the numerous dockside bars.

When Cesaria was seven, her father died unexpectedly. Her mother struggled on, trying to continue to keep her large family together. When the fight became impossible to win, the older Evora children were sent to an orphanage. Cesaria was one of them. When asked about her time there in an Associated Press interview in 2000, Evora was frank about the experience: “I didn’t like it. I value my freedom.”

To gain that freedom, Cesaria began doing piecework at a local clothing manufacturer. She was sixteen years old and the hours were long and grueling. She had a number of friends, both in and out of the orphanage, who knew her true talent: singing. Her beautiful, caramel-smooth voice was already notable among those who knew her and her way with the local music of Cape Verde, known as morna, was unsurpassed. Friends goaded her to sing in public, but at first she refused.

Finally, fed up with her mind-numbing work as a seamstress, Cesaria presented herself at one of the dockside bars offering her services as a singer. The owner accepted, paying her not in cash but in alcohol. Cesaria quickly got a taste for cognac, her appetite for which would become legendary. Buzz about her singing also spread quickly; by the time she was seventeen she had gigs in many of the bars frequented by the sailors that were in and out of Mindelo. Not much later, friends were rowing Cesaria out to ships at anchor to sing for the sailors not allowed shore leave. On these occasions, she was paid in cash and the benefits of a new more enjoyable career became apparent.

Cesaria’s big break, so to say, came when cruise ships began dropping anchor in Mindelo harbor. Cesaria was booked aboard some of them as an entertainer. This exposure brought international attention and she moved first to Lisbon and then to Paris where she once again returned to singing in bars. These nightclubs were more upscale than the sailor dives she had known in her early years, and the pay came in checks instead of a glass. The press took note; Le Monde reviewed her more than once saying at one point that Cesaria belonged “… to the aristocracy of bar singers” and likening her to Billie Holiday. She began recording in Paris.

True international fame came with the release of her 1988 album “La Diva Aux Pieds Nus”. Cesaria had never given up her youthful habit of performing in bare feet and the name “Barefoot Diva” stuck. She was nominated for a Grammy in 1995 and she began to tour internationally, bringing her gorgeous voice and the rhythm-based morna style to audiences around the world. Her album “Voz d’Amor” won a World Music Grammy in 2003.

All the attention left Cesaria Evora unimpressed. She continued to call Mindelo home, buying and renovating her childhood home into a ten bedroom retreat where friends and family were in and out (see a picture of it here). Her health deteriorated; she suffered two strokes and had open heart surgery over the course of a decade but very little slowed her down. Cesaria was out on the road in 2010 with a series of large concerts; she suffered a heart attack after the last one in May.

Cesaria recovered and returned to Mindelo but her health was never to fully return. She announced her official retirement in September and passed on to join that amazing ensemble in the sky last Saturday.

Of the morna music she brought to the world, Cesaria told the Associated Press “Our music is a lot of things. Some say it’s like the blues, or jazz. Others say it’s like Brazilian or African music, but no one really knows. Not even the old ones.”

If anyone knew what morna was, it was the Barefoot Diva who started out singing for sailors in bars and on the waves. Sample a bit of Cesaria Evora’s genius here with one of my favorites “Besame Mucho”.

Header: Cesaria Evora via


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nice trubute to a great talent. Amazing that she did not start her recording career until she was 47 years old...

RIP Barefoot Diva.

Pauline said...

She was a pretty amazing lady all around; a real inspiration.

Blue Lou Logan said...

I first came across Cesaria Evora during my tenure as the weekly host/DJ of Music of the World's People on KCBX, San Luis Obispo Public Radio. This was also the first stepping stone on my way to ethnomusicology and my Doctorate. I distinctly remember coming across her voice for the first time, and how emotive every single note seemed. Voices that sound like no one else, distinctive to the soul--I think of Billie Holiday, Celia Cruz, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell...Cesaria Evora. Con respeto.

Pauline said...

I learned of the Diva's beautiful music in college, too. A dear friend from high school was in the jazz ensemble at UCLA and I used to drive up for her concerts. They included "Besame Mucho" and "Sodade" in their repetoir and I ran out to get my hands on the originals (at Tower Records on Hollywood Blvd no less - dating myself there). Brilliant stuff; I hope more people will seek out her genius and keep her alive through her music.

Great list too, BTW :)