Cesária Evora was a musician for the people
Back in 1999, I caught Cesaria Evora — who passed away on her native island of Sao Vicente, Cabo Verde this past Saturday at 70 years old — in a couple of shows in Boston and New Bedford. The two concerts, one at the Berklee Performing Arts Center and the other at the Zeiterion Theatre, were classic Cesaria. Big, beautiful, barefoot and wall-eyed, she drifted in front of her band across the stage, smoking cigarettes and sipping on just enough grog to lubricate her vocal chords. She filled the hall with that voice, that capacious, sweet, rugged blow of a voice, so broad and so deep you could sail a boat across it.
As she got older, she cut back some on the cigarettes, and quit her heavy drinking, and despite the toll each of these habits, especially the smoking, took on her instrument and eventually her life, it would be no easier to imagine Cesaria Evora singing without a little nip and a pack of Marlboros nearby or performing with shoes on as Sinatra would have been to pipe-out "My Way" in cowboy boots, jeans and a plaid shirt.
Cesaria Evora left Mindelo, Sao Vicente, to sing the morna on the world's great stages, winning a Grammy and becoming a chevalier in the French Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur along the way. Although she had been performing on and off since the 1950s, it was not until the release of two albums in the 1990s that Cesaria would emerge to international acclaim in the "world music scene," an ubiquitous though absurd catch-all category that seems to mean "music made by people from some weird place I've never heard of."
No matter the magnitude of her fame nor the size of the stage on which her bare feet shuffled, Cesaria's performance style remained intimate and familiar. She was schooled singing in Mindelo's taverns and cafes to sailors, fishermen and working people, many of whom were family and friends, and her act didn't change just because she happened to be performing in Carnegie Hall. The two shows I saw in 1999 revealed the heart of Cesaria and the smoky intimacy of her performances.
In attendance at the first show at Berklee was a smattering of her Cape Verdean and Portuguese fan base, but the predominant spectator profile was drawn from the Boston hipster class common at these kinds of "world music" events, on that night made up largely of university types and dandies decked out in their autumn scarves. They clapped exuberantly and laughed like they were part of the joke every time Cesaria took a pull on her cigarette, and as with hip audiences at these kind of performances anywhere, they enjoyed the sounds as much as the fact that they were in-the-know enough to be there in the first place.
The New Bedford show though, held as it was in the heart of the SouthCoast's migrant Portuguese community, in a city with a vast Cape Verdean migrant population, brought out countrymen and cousins who were there not for a "world music" concert, but rather, for a village festa."Spit" from Sao Vicente and all over Cape Verde, family friends and distant relatives of the singer and members of her band were constantly shouting out to the stage in crioulo and Cesaria shouted back at them. Where the Berklee crowd contained themselves to feeling the music with bottoms planted firmly in seats, those at the Zeiterion were up in the aisles, whooping, laughing and dancing to the music. Cesaria may have been called the Queen of the Morna, but in New Bedford it was clear that she was the Queen of all of Cabo Verde.
This is how performances by Cape Verdean musical stars are treated, be it Cesaria or Tito Paris or Mayra Andrade. It is the kind of familiarity and closeness that only exists among performers and a public that have been friends and intimates — both on and off of the stage — for a long time. It is a particular characteristic of artists from places like Cape Verde or Portugal, in that before an artist makes it to international acclaim they have been long a part of autogenous music scenes that are as much a community of familiars as they are cultural milieux.
Cesaria's approach to performance and her public persona were the antithesis of other artists of the Celine Dion/Barbara Streisand ilk, the imperious and self-aggrandizing prima donnas. After watching Cesaria in Boston and New Bedford, my companion at the two shows told me a story from her days working at a San Francisco Bay area concert hall where the opera star Kathleen Battle once performed. Apparently there was a 15-foot outdoor walkway between two buildings across which performers were required to pass in order to arrive at the concert venue. Worried about her voice, she refused to hazard the five second walk in the balmy California weather, demanding that she be driven to the other side. Opera singers must protect their voices, not doubt, but the concert organizers played along arranging a car and driver to pick up the diva at one door, wheeling her across the street and depositing her in front of the other building.
With notable exceptions (almost always Fado singers) this kind of affectation is rare among performers coming from the small artists communities in Portugal and Cape Verde. When one literally grows up with one's public, when an artist's scene is also a local community of family and friends, that way of doing things is not going to wash. Indeed, when she was on her home island, the door to Cesaria's house was open to receive visitors; an invitation that apparently continued, even as she lay dying over her last months.
The entire world is made smaller by the death of anyone who is exceptional at what they do, especially an artist like Cesaria Evora, who in her domain was san pareil. That so many of those who loved her music were also so intimate with her makes Cesaria's death not merely the passing of a beloved distant public figure and special artist, but rather the death of a dear member of one's family.
From a "Petit Pays" she become the "Amore di mundo." Nha Kretcheu, Cesaria, only Sodade, Sodade.