Cesaria Evora, the “barefoot diva”, became the ambassadress par excellence of her country, the small West African island group of Cape Verde, and one of the most famous African singers in the world. Her origins were humble and she represented that dying breed typified by the last of the old rural blues singers – an artist who genuinely lived the hard times her songs spoke of.

Always sang barefoot

Many still wonder why she always sang barefoot. There was always a little carpet on stage for her.

According to one version – due to legs pain. But the most popular version – she expressed solidarity with the poor, who constituted the bulk of the population of Cape Verde. 

At the same time, Cesaria said that since childhood she was used to walking barefoot and does not like shoes. Only in cool countries she wore comfortable leather flip flops.

Called “Cinderella”, she didn’t even think about fame

If there were ever a voice that embodied that of a siren, a voice that could seduce, sadden and soothe with its elegance, it was Cesária Évora’s. It was the voice that lifted Cape Verde’s little-known blues, morna, beyond the island and into the international world of music. In 1995, Évora’s years of living and singing the blues culminated in Cesária, an album that cemented the importance of Évora, and morna, in world music.

As with the greatest blues singers of all time, the knowing and sensitivity Évora brought to morna was lived, not sought after. She was born in Mindelo, a port city on the island of São Vicente. Her musician father died when she was a young girl; Évora’s mother, unable to care for her, placed her in an orphanage soon after. By the age of 16, Évora was already world-weary: swigging scotch, burning through cigarettes and captivating patrons with songs of loss in tiny Cape Verde taverns.

She sang in Kriolu, which draws from West African dialects and Portuguese — the language of Cape Verde’s former colonizer. Évora had a gift for elevating morna ballads, a style of song whose lyrics address poverty, longing, and most deeply, partings: of both the physical and emotional kind. Her melodic voice conjured the beauty and struggle, melancholy and yearning of life in Cape Verde. Performing without shoes, Évora was often paid with drinks and trivial tips as she performed for the sailors who arrived on the Portuguese cruise ships that docked at Mindelo. Yet her languid vocals and blasé glamour were unforgettable. She would eventually be known as the “barefoot diva” and the queen of morna, both names capturing the humble majesty she evoked.

Decades before seasoned artists such as Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley reached world-wide fame at ages where most musicians had long retired or given up, Évora was “discovered” at the age of 47 by producer José Da Silva while singing in Lisbon. Bana, a Cape Verdean singer (known as the “king of morna) who had found success off the island, wanted to expose Évora, and morna, to a larger audience. So he invited Évora to perform in Portugal. That fateful trip would change her life. But as with much of her career, rightful acclaim would come later: four albums in, to be exact, with 1992’s Miss Perfumado. That album made her an international star, and went on to sell 300,000 copies worldwide.

She never wanted to be liked by anyone, but millions adored her

Simplicity has been a hallmark of the Evora style, as was emphasized by Jon Pareles in his New York Times review of a 1995 performance at the Bottom Line in New York City: “She [Evora] stated melodies almost unadorned, lingering with vibrato at the end of a phrase and sometimes languidly sliding down to a note.” Pareles added, “In her tranquil contralto, there were painful memories and unsatisfied longings, a sense of pensive reassurance and of inconsolable loss. “Evora also found a very appreciative audience at a performance at Birchmere in Washington, D.C. that year. Washington Post reviewer Mike Joyce said, “Evora projected an unusual combination of vocal power and emotional vulnerability.” “At times Evora not only sang of heartache, she seemed to personify it, each gesture reflecting the weight of her experience and pain,” Joyce also noted.

Live not for yourself, but for others

Over 10 years of worldwide fame, Cesaria earned about $ 50 million. But for herself, she did not need anything. In her native Cape Verde, she rode an old blue Ford. But from the 90s to 2011, she fully funded the Cape Verde primary education system (and partly the general education system).

Thanks to her, schools opened, and thousands of children learned to write and read. Now almost all Cape Verde islands have elementary schools. She said: “Luxury is unknown to me. But I have everything that a person needs for happiness: home, work, friends, children, grandchildren and their love. I am a simple person, just like you, like everyone else. And I’m not shy about that. ”

Appreciated physical labor

Cesaria tried to do all the housework herself. The doors of her house in Mindela were always open to numerous relatives and countrymen, they helped to restore order when she was on tour or was sick. But often she washed the floor and cooked herself. They say she divinely prepared the national Kabverdian dish kachupu. Before going on stage, she always ironed the concert dress herself, for her it was a kind of ritual, then she loved to show her burned hands, being carried away by the process, she often forgot about the iron.

“I never give up music, but men come and go”

Cesaria has three children, all from different men. She has never been married. In her interviews, she repeatedly said that men come and go, and the main thing for her in life is music: “I never wanted to have a husband, I always lived with my mother because she loves me.”

Never hid bad habits

Évora loved rum and cigarettes. Even during performances, she would instruct her band to play while she took time off to smoke and have a drink.

– I sang in the bars of Mindelo. The music there was an accompaniment to an intimate conversation under a glass of grog. Everyone treated me and I got involved. When I stopped singing, alcohol saved me from black thoughts. But now I sing again and I don’t need cognac. I drink only water.

In addition, Cesaria Evora has never hidden her love for cigarettes. Once during a concert in New York, she ignored the strict ban on smoking in the hall and lit a cigarette, which caused a storm of applause from the audience. A pipe, cigar, or plain cigarette has always been an attribute of her performance. They say that somehow a rich fan, fearing for her health, offered her a brand new Mercedes if she gave up her bad habit, but she spread her hands: “If I like to smoke, why shouldn’t I do this ?!” Apparently, She didn’t need a Mercedes at all …

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