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The Music of Cesaria Evora

The market is easy to find, a gabled building on Mindelo's wide main street. On the ground floor are merchants selling abundant produce, albeit in a limited variety--lettuce, tomatoes, papayas, and cracked corn (the basis of the national dish, cachupa)--as well as fresh goat cheese and bottles of home-brewed grogue, a fiery sugarcane liquor flavored with coconut, lemon, or honey. Upstairs are a café, a hair salon, and a few boutiques. It is unlike any other African market I've seen. Each of the vendors has the same city-mandated allotment of space, and their goods are stacked in neat piles. There is no rush, no crowd, no screaming children. The floors are even freshly mopped. And at Tropical Dance, a small record shop covered floor-to-ceiling with Cesaria posters, José is expecting us. We climb into his jeep for the short ride to her house, located in a prosperous part of town where the cinder-block structures are painted in delicate pastels.

Casa Cesaria--even the taxi drivers call it that--is a dull-yellow three-story affair, larger than most, but by no means lavish. Each room is occupied by a different member of Cesaria's large family. Her blind 87-year-old grandmother is asleep in the front, her niece is in the kitchen preparing dinner (lobsters and rice), kids run shrieking through the rest of the house. Cesaria herself is not to be found. Nor does her niece have any idea where she is: Asleep?Out for a walk?We are left to wait in the living room, hung with her gold records, a small Elvis poster, and commemorative plaques from the New Bedford expatriate community. Cesaria's grandniece hums songs in Holley's ear as a treat.

Suddenly, Cesaria materializes in the doorway, moving with a languid grace. She is wearing a rayon dress printed with a green seashell motif; her fingernails are painted a metallic green; and, as is her wont, she is barefoot (in Paris, she is known as la diva avec pieds nus). Through José, who speaks French--Cape Verdeans speak crioulu, a patois of Portuguese with West African inflections--Cesaria offers us a grogue, then sits and lights a cigarette; she hasn't had a drink in 10 years.

"So what can I do for you?" she asks brusquely, as if we were neighbors come to borrow a cup of sugar. I really have only one question, I say. I came here to find the source of your music and its sadness. What--and where--is it?

Cesaria gives a weary smile and breathes a single word: "Sodade." I have heard it before--it jumps through her lyrics even if you don't know a word of crioulu--but I'd never quite understood what it meant. In "The Sea is the Home of Nostalgia" she sings:

Mar é morada di sodade
El ta separá--no pa terra longe
El ta separá--no d'nôs mãe, nôs amigo
Sem certeza di torná encontrá.

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 ever see them again.

"Sodade is a mystical feeling," Cesaria explains, "a way of saying that you miss someone, a husband, a child. It's a sadness about some other time."

And what are you remembering, I ask--what have you lost?And how does that translate into morna's slippery-soft melodies, the plaintive minor keys?Cesaria lets loose a long explanation: For years, she had sung in bars and restaurants all over Cape Verde without recognition. Life was hard. She married three times, never happily. She even stopped singing for 10 years. But in 1985 she traveled to Lisbon with her Uncle Bana, one of the country's greatest morna musicians, where she met José da Silva, a French Cape Verdean who manages many top musicians. With da Silva producing, Cesaria recorded the trio of albums--Mar Azul, Miss Perfumado, and Cesaria Evora--that won her a worldwide audience (and Grammy nominations for the latter two releases).

Cesaria pauses to exhale another plume of smoke. Fame may have made life easier, she says, fingering the red grosgrain of her Grammy medallion, but it hasn't made her any happier. All she has is her family and her love of her homeland, this place where it is so difficult to stay yet so hard to leave. "You want to know morna?" she finally says. "It's just our version of the blues."

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