Profile: Cesaria Evora
‘La diva aux pieds nus’

They call her ‘la diva aux pieds nus’ and Cesaria Evora does indeed like to perform barefoot as a symbolic salute to the poor of Cape Verde, the small island developing state where she was born and still lives, and which she evokes in her songs.

She was born, in the 1940s, into poverty herself. Her father died shortly after her seventh birthday, and she and her six siblings were raised by her mother, in straitened circumstances, on scant earnings as a cook. The young Cesaria was left in the care of a local orphanage, where she learned to sing in the choir.

From 16 she was earning a meagre living, singing for a few escuados or a couple of drinks in the bars of her home town, Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente, one of the ten islands with some 400,000 people, over 560 kilometres off the coast of West Africa, that make up the country. She took up the haunting sounds of the local morna (named after the verb to mourn) – the roots of which go back to the times when Cape Verde was an important station in the slave trade. Her music revolves around the themes of suffering, melancholy and exile.

Songs of poverty
‘My songs are about loss and longing, love, politics, immigration – and reality,’ she has explained. ‘We sing about our land, about the sun, about the rain that never comes, about poverty and problems: how the people on Cape Verde live.’

After many dark years, she got her big break in her 40s, when she was invited to give a series of concerts in Lisbon and met José da Silva, a young Frenchman with Cape Verdean roots. He became her producer and persuaded her to go to Paris and record her first hit album ‘The barefoot Diva’. She became an overnight success. She won a Grammy early this year, after being nominated for the sixth time, and has been honoured in France as an Official of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Fighting hunger
But her songs still go back to her roots. ‘Poverty has always been unreal for you, so who are you to judge the situation in our country’, she challenges in the song ‘Tudo Tem Se Limite’. Or in more optimistic mood, she sings in ‘Jardim Prometido’: ‘Cape Verde is green in our hearts. Full of love, our hands will make the land grow green.’

For a long time she resisted associating her name with any humanitarian agency, but last year she became an Ambassador against hunger for the World Food Programme – the first African artist to take up that role – after witnessing the impact of its School Feeding Programme in Cape Verde. ‘I saw with my own eyes how food attracted children to school,’ she said. ‘We need to educate our children if we want our continent to prosper, but they can’t learn if they go to school hungry.’

The sea is the home of nostalgia

In the late afternoon, when the sun was setting
I was walking on the beach at Nantasqued
It reminded me of the beach at Furna
I was overwhelmed with nostalgia and I cried
The sea is the home of nostalgia
It separates us from distant lands
It separates us from our mothers, our friends
Unsure if we’ll see them again
I thought of my lonely life
With no one I have faith in at my side
I watched the waves gently dying
Sentiment overcame me

From Cesaria Evora, ‘Cabo Verde’, 1997, Nonesuch Records, a Warner Music Group Company

PHOTOGRAPH: Joe Wurfel-Lusafrica

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, Values and the Environment, 1996
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Poverty, health and the environment, 2001