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The Music of Cesaria Evora

The first time I heard the music of Cesaria Evora, it came to me as if in a dream, as if some mermaid were calling my name, backed by an orchestra of lyres and guitars. I was in a crowded New York restaurant with forgettable food, but her songs cut into me like a knife. Somehow I felt that I had always known this music's emotional geography--heartache, longing, an infinite sadness--but if you'd asked me to locate its source on the map, I'd have been stumped. There were murmurs of a smoldering Argentine tango, the melancholic lilt of a Portuguese fado, a seductive bossa nova churn of sex and nostalgia from Brazil. All I knew was that I was being called by a voice named Cesaria Evora from a place called Cape Verde.

At the time, I had only the barest knowledge of these 10 islands, an hour and a half by plane from the coast of West Africa. To me Cape Verde signified mystery, song, lush green. A friend told me otherwise. South African Airways flights from Johannesburg to New York make refueling stops on the Cape Verdean island of Sal. From the air, my friend said, Sal looks like desert; in all her years of flying to Johannesburg she'd never seen anyone but Cape Verdeans and hard-core smokers get off the plane. "Why would you want to go there?" she asked. And I told her about Cesaria Evora, the songs, and the verdant islands of my imagination.

Now it's 4 a.m. on a black January night, and Holley and I have just landed at Amilcar Cabral Airport on Sal. About 10 other people have deplaned with us, all of them, it seems, Cape Verdeans. In minutes they are gone, and Holley and I are left in the terminal listening to the inescapably sad and delicate mornas of Cesaria trickling out of the tinny airport speaker. With a few hours before our flight to Mindelo, the largest city on São Vicente, where Cesaria makes her home, we decide to hop a cab for a quick sunrise drive around Sal. We see nothing: no litter, no salt mines (sal means salt), just a few hotels, and fishing boats parked incongruously on sand dunes. Back at the airport, Holley stands on the deserted tarmac, hair blown to pieces. "There are nine more islands," she says, giggling. "They can't all be like this."

LATER THAT DAY WE ARE GAZING OVER MINDELO'S central square from our balcony at the Porto Grande Hotel. The little we've seen of São Vicente since touching down on its tiny airstrip hasn't been particularly promising. Bumping along the black cobblestones to Mindelo, we passed rugged mountains of hardened lava, small stone houses, and the rusting hulks of half-capsized fishing boats jutting out of the sea. It was so windy it felt as if our taxi would fly off the road. By the time we reached Mindelo, we were relieved to be standing still.

Down in the praça, the locals are whiling away the afternoon in a café, a one-room fairy-tale castle--arched windows, turrets, stained-glass doors, all in a bizarre blend of colonial Portuguese and neo-Victorian architectural styles--that we are told was once a weigh station for the nearby market. The entire setting feels more European than African. Of course, Cape Verde is both. The islands were uninhabited when the first Portuguese explorers arrived in 1460, and for the next five centuries, Cape Verde was an extension of the Portuguese empire, more an overseas state than a mere colony.

It has always been desperately poor. Dry harmattan winds from deep in the Sahara make it almost impossible to sustain productive farms. Drought and famine have killed more than 100,000 islanders over the centuries. As a result, the economy was kept alive from the outside. The Portuguese used Cape Verde as a transshipment point for slave trading between Guinea and their empire in the Antilles and Brazil; the British arrived in the 1860's and developed Mindelo's sheltered bay into a coal bunkering station for steamships sailing to Brazil. Ever since the great famines of the mid-1920's, when many islanders emigrated, the economy has been supported by contributions from Cape Verdeans living abroad, mostly in the Portuguese enclaves of Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. Today, of the 1 million Cape Verdeans worldwide, only 400,000 still live on the islands. The large, loyal expatriate community has been a crucial ingredient in Cesaria Evora's global musical success.

Cesaria had played two sold-out concerts in New York shortly before our trip, and her management was eager to help me arrange a meeting with her on her home turf. Once you arrive in Mindelo, they told me, it will be simple: Just go to the central market and introduce yourself to José Lucas, the owner of a music store called Tropical Dance. He'll know exactly what to do.

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